Urban Refugees

  1. definition
  2. examples and/or illustrations
  3. other useful sources
  4. bibliography


Refugees living in “a built-up area that accommodates large numbers of people living in close  proximity to each other, and where the majority of people sustain themselves by means of formal and  informal employment and the provision of goods and services.”

                -UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in

Urban Areas, September 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ab8e7f72.html [accessed 6 May 2013]

Rapid urbanization is one the most significant mega-trends confronting our planet. As urban populations have grown, so too has the number of refugees living in towns and cities, with indicators pointing to both trends accelerating in the coming decades. Of the 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate worldwide, an estimated 50 per cent now live in cities and towns while just one third live in camps.

–          UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, “Media Backgrounder: Responding to a growing challenge – protecting refugees in towns and cities,” 7 December 2009, http://www.unhcr.org/4b1cbbda9.html. [accessed 25 May 2013]


Examples and/or Illustrations

The iconic image of refugees is row upon row of white tents in a sprawling emergency camp. But the reality is that only one-third of the world’s 10.5 million refugees now live in camps. Like 3.3 billion other people on Earth, they have been steadily moving to cities and towns, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s. More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas, with the remainder outside camps living in rural areas. In the future, more and more refugees will be trying to survive in cities and towns, as will former refugees who return to their homelands and those displaced inside their countries.

–          UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency,”Urban Refugees,” “Trying to Get By in the City,” http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4b0e4cba6.html. [accessed 25 May 2013]

“Refugees who join the steady advance of people moving to African and other Southern cities go for particular reasons related to their search for safety, access to international links (to receive remittances, for example), and options for resettlement… refugees also choose urban areas for the same reasons as citizens do…, refugees are unambiguously distinguished from citizens by their legal status, rendering them ineligible for services and dependent on the beneficence of the state for residency rights. As non-citizens, they are not perceived as part of the national interest—they are seen as foreign objects in the body politic—and most policies are designed to control, contain, and segregate them from the rest of the population.”

–          Fabos, Anita and Gaim Kibreab. 2007. “Urban Refugees: Introduction.”
24(1): 3-10.

“In many conflict zones today, the targeting and uprooting of rural populations and their forced displacement is an integral part of the war strategies of rebel or government forces. Notable recent examples include Sudan, northern Uganda, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Burma and Somalia. Many of these displaced people flee across borders to become refugees, but even more become internally displaced and a large and growing proportion migrate to the urban areas and particularly the capital of their own countries. Unlike internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps who are more easily identified and assisted, IDPs in urban areas comprise a hidden population, and aid agencies and governments have difficulty identifying them and understanding their experience relative to the urban population amongst whom they live. Relatively little is known about their precise numbers, demographics, basic needs and protection problems.”

-Jacobsen, Karen. 2008. “Abijdan, Cote d’Ivoire: Case 2.” Internal Displacement to Urban Areas: the Tufts-IDMC Profiling Study. http://www.internal-displacement.org/urban [Accessed 23 May 2013].

“Many refugees enter urban settings hoping to have the opportunity to retain self-sufficiency and earn an income in order to support their family, but the reality of living as a refugee in a city can be difficult without proper support mechanisms. The reality is that many refugees in the Global South face grave rights violations and extreme levels of poverty. The spatial dispersion of urban refugees makes it difficult for aid organisations to easily identify refugees and access them, and for organisations such as UNHCR, identifying and registering refugees is an important component to assessing how much aid is needed. On the other side of this issue, often times it is difficult for urban refugees to reach out to UNHCR, as locating the office may be difficult for a newcomer to that particular city, which is made increasingly difficult if there is a language barrier between the refugee and the host population. Unfortunately, host governments within the Global South often restrict services available to urban refugees, as they fear it will create “pull factors” that make their city more appealing for more refugees.”

-Mattheisen, Emily. 2012. “’Because I am a stranger’ Urban refugees in Yaoundé, Cameroon.” UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service: New Issues in Refugee Research No. 244. http://www.refworld.org/docid/5142dfc32.html [accessed 23 May 2013].


Other Useful Sources

Forced Migration Review, Issue 34, February 2010, “Adapting to Urban Displacement.” http://www.fmreview.org/urban-displacement

Forced Migration Online “Urban Displacement” http://www.forcedmigration.org/research-resources/thematic/urban-displacement [Accessed 6 May 2013].

High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, 2009: Challenges for People of Concern to UNHCR in Urban Settings http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a12a4a26.html [Accessed 5 May 2013].

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre: Tufts-IDMC Profiling Study. http://www.internal-displacement.org/urban [Accessed 23 May 2013].

Morris, Tim. 2012. Select Bibliography: Refugees and Displaced People in Urban Areas. http://www.unhcr.org/4b0ba1209.html [Accessed 6 May 2013].

Refuge Volume 24(1), 2007, “Urban Refugees” http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/refuge/issue/view/1268.

Urban Refugees http://urban-refugees.org/ [Accessed 6 May 2013].

JRS, Jesuit Refugee Service, “Jesuit Refugee Service and urban refugees, http://www.jrs.net/campaign_detail?PTN=1&TN=PROJECT-20100616105932. [accessed 25 May 2013]



Briant, Natalie, and Andrew Kennedy. 2004. “An investigation of the perceived needs and priorities held by African refugees in an urban setting in a first country of asylum.” Journal of Refugee Studies 17(4): 437-459.

Campbell, Elizabeth H. 2006. “Urban refugees in Nairobi: Problems of protection, mechanisms of survival, and possibilities for integration.”  Journal of Refugee Studies 19(3): 396-413.

Crisp, Jeff, Jane Janz, José Riera  and Shahira Samy. 2009. “Surviving in the city: A review of UNHCR’s operation for Iraqi refugees in urban areas of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria” UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service. http://www.refworld.org/docid/4d1d93672.html.

Crisp, Jeff & Hilde Reftsie. 2011. “The urbanisation of displaced people” CIVIS no 5, Cities Alliance. www.citiesalliance.org/node/2552.

Dryden-Peterson, Sarah. 2006. “‘I find myself as someone who is in the forest’: Urban refugees as agents of social change in Kampala, Uganda.” Journal of Refugee Studies 19(3): 381-395.

Edwards, Alice (2010), “‘Legitimate’ protection spaces: UNHCR’s 2009 policy.” Forced Migration Review 34.

Fiddian, Elena. 2006. “Relocating.” Interventions 8(2): 295-318.

Grünewald, François. 2012. “Aid in a city at war: The case of Mogadishu, Somalia.” Disasters 36: S105-S125.

Landau, Loren B., and Marguerite Duponchel. 2011. “Laws, policies, or social position? Capabilities and the determinants of effective protection in four African cities. Journal of Refugee Studies 24(1): 1-22.

Lyon, Fergus, Leandro Sepulveda, and Stephen Syrett. 2007. “Enterprising refugees: Contributions and challenges in deprived urban areas.” Local Economy 22(4): 362-375.

MacKenzie, Robert, Chris Forde, and Zinovijus Ciupijus. 2012. “Networks of support for new migrant communities: Institutional goals versus substantive goals?” Urban Studies 49(3): 631-647.

Netto, Gina. 2011. “Strangers in the city: Addressing challenges to the protection, housing and settlement of refugees.” International Journal of Housing Policy 11(3): 285-303.

Phillimore, Jenny, and Lisa Goodson. 2006. “Problem or opportunity? Asylum seekers, refugees, employment and social exclusion in deprived urban areas.” Urban Studies 43(10): 1715-1736.

Sommers, Marc. 2001. “Young, Male and Pentecostal: Urban Refugees in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.”  Journal of Refugee Studies 14(4): 347-370.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, September 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ab8e7f72.html [accessed 6 May 2013].

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Policy on Refugees in Urban Areas, 12 December 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3cbaedf74.html [accessed 6 May 2013]