Going urban – aid must adapt to shifting refugee trends

Aid, Conflict, Humanitarian

Humanitarian aid is usually associated with camps and emergency shelters, both in terms of the images shown and the concentration of aid workers. However, with the numbers of refugees living in cities and towns, Alan Brouder looks at why camps are being seen as a last resort and there is an increasing focus on urban contexts. 

1.2 million Syrian refugees are currently living in the towns and cities of Lebanon, while another million are displaced in Turkey, and a further 600,000 in Jordan. Millions more from different conflicts are eking out a living in the towns and cities of Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela, and Kenya. Despite this, many humanitarian agencies continue to focus their attention on the small number of camps that do exist, where their presence and investment is often
disproportionate to the overall number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). 

Refugees in and out of camps (Credit: IRIN)International Rescue Committee (IRC) chief David Miliband  described this situation last week when he spoke of a ‘growing mismatch between humanitarian need and humanitarian provision‘. At a meeting on urban displacement hosted by the IRC at
Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, Miliband argued that the international humanitarian system was failing to keep pace with the changing nature of crises as they become more frequent, more protracted, and more complex. Some of this increased complexity is the result of a sharp rise in the numbers of forcibly displaced people flowing into urban areas. Compounding this is the persistence of a mindset within the general public, host states, and the humanitarian community, that the camp is a dominant, central, and perhaps inevitable feature of the refugee experience, despite the
fact that some 60% of all refugees now live outside camps, and that refugees have consistently told agencies that camps should only ever be used as a last resort. 

Agencies and states are beginning to recognise this, of course. In July 2014, for example, UNHCR adopted a new policy stating that their aim was to pursue ‘alternatives to camps, whenever possible‘, following on from their 2009 urban refugee policy, which for the first time recognised urban areas as legitimate places for refugees to reside as well as calling for the international community to provide assistance to them in their urban

Oxfam and others are also beginning to complement their camp work with longer-term support to urban refugees and host communities in partnership with local governments, as I saw in Jordan a few months ago. Some affected countries, like Pakistan and Tanzania are now developing urban refugee policies, and new tools are being developed to help in programme design, like the World Bank’s political economy analysis tool for urban displacement, due out soon. In April this year, the Solutions
was formed by humanitarian actors, development organisations, affected states, donors, and academics to promote and enable the transition for displaced persons away from dependency towards increased resilience, self-reliance, and development. 

Refugees have consistently told agencies that camps should only ever be used as a last resort

Despite this progress, however, difficult questions remain about exactly how to provide protection and assistance in urban environments, where refugees and IDPs are often transient and hard to reach. Dignity and self-reliance are key for refugees, but the right to work is not usually extended to them, and remains a sensitive topic with most host states. New solutions for cash assistance are being trialled through pre-paid cards and mobile transfers, but many still face difficulties in meeting the cost of basics such as rental payments. Agencies must decide how long
rental subsidies can be maintained, but exit strategies are difficult when livelihood options are limited, as Oxfam is currently experiencing in Haiti. And what does it mean to ‘serve’ host communities? How ambitious should that be, especially in middle-income countries?

At Ditchley Park, agencies and donors agreed that the realities of urban displacement require us to shed the collective camp-based mindset and replace it with a focus on the challenges of protection and assistance in urban contexts, which will require both a humanitarian and development response. Area-based programming, built on sound contextual analysis, and conducted in partnership with local and national governments is essential, as is the importance of addressing the needs of both the displaced and host communities. The new urban context for
assistance also provides an opportunity for the humanitarian and development community to strengthen local markets, while simultaneously strengthening coordination with each other. With ‘humanitarian effectiveness’ selected as one of the themes for the first World Humanitarian Summit in April 2016, it’s high time for urban policy to be given a central and permanent place on the humanitarian agenda.

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Image: Syrian children living in makeshift shelters in Amman, Jordan (Credit: Alan Brouder/Oxfam)
Image: Refugees – in and out of camps Â©IRIN

Author: Alan Brouder
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.