An Invisible Population: The Changing Dynamic of a Growing Refugee Population

By Ryan Lasnick

The UN estimates that there are currently 59.5 million displaced people living in the world, the highest number in since World War II. While the common perception of refugees is an image of people living in rural tent cities set up by humanitarian organizations such as the UN, this is no longer the case. In fact, more than 55 percent of all refugees now live in urban areas, and this is consistently growing. The influx of refugees into urban environments poses vastly different problems than that of a traditional refugee camp and requires new and creative approaches.

Refugees in camps are afforded assistance and protection as part of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate and as an incentive for the host country to keep them in one area. In contrast, urban refugees receive little assistance and what they do receive is insufficient to meet basic needs. A recent study by the Refugee Studies Centre stated that 78 percent of urban refugee households in Uganda manage to survive despite receiving no support of any form from UNHCR or other refugee-supporting agencies.

Fawaz Rarhail Turkey, 59, from Homs, Syria, pictured with his family outside a derelict house in Al Mafraq, Jordan, which they moved into after leaving Syria. "The army forced entry into our homes and we became afraid for our children so we were forced to

Syrian refugee Fawaz Rarhail Turkey stands with his family outside his home in Al Mafraq Jordan. “After the army forced their way into our homes we were afraid for our children’s safety and decided to flee the country,” he said. Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures for the European Commission via Flickr.

Unlike refugees in camps, urban refugees tend to be dispersed over a large geographical area, making them difficult to identify. As a result, urban refugees become an invisible population, despite their need for support. Many refugees move to urban areas in the hope of finding safety, a sense of community, economic independence, or simply based on necessity. For refugees, urban environments are often depicted as providing safety from abuse, harassment, and violence as well as accessible health services that are not readily available in camps. However, this is rarely the case. In fact, 72 percent of urban refugees in South Africa stated that they or someone they lived with had been victim of a violent crime within the first couple months of living in the country.

Humanitarian organizations have little presence in these urban environments and lack the resources to provide aid and protection to those who really need it. Refugees in urban areas live alongside other urban poor in slums or informal settlements where resources are traditionally overstretched, political and social relations fragile, and there is no real sense of community. These urban refugees are often unknown to the countries they are living in, and as such they are not provided the resources or legal protection that are available to recognized refugees.

For urban refugees, employment in the informal sector is often the only way to make a living. This livelihood presents dangers to refugees; a study in South Africa showed that urban refugees were 51 percent more likely to be harassed or unlawfully stopped by the police than a native citizen. In countries that have not ratified UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines refugee status, refugee rights, and the obligations of states, refugees are likely to be forced into the informal economy in order to keep their refugee status hidden. Often, employers exploit refugee workers’ dire situation and pay unfair wages, demand long working hours, or expose refugees to dangerous working conditions. This goes unreported because refugees fear identification and subsequent detention or deportation.

Because urban refugees are forced into the informal economy, they have an inability to access credit and financial services that are available to regular citizens. This hinders savings, prevents entrepreneurship, and prolongs poverty for the refugees. Refugees living illegally in cities are unable to open bank accounts, cash checks, or access basic financial services. Even those urban refugees with legal status may be denied access to formal sources of credit and consequently forfeit opportunities to start or expand businesses. A study in Johannesburg, South Africa, showed that only 24 percent of urban refugees reported having a bank account compared to 71 percent of South Africans. This lack of a formal financial service puts urban refugees in further danger of theft, robbery, and extortion.

The legal protection for urban refugees in developing countries is limited. Lebanon, which has not ratified the 1951 convention, requires refugees to pay $200 for a residency permit, secure a signed lease, and have a village leader vouch for them if they wish to legally live in the country. The Lebanese government also asks refugees to sign a document pledging not to work in the country and to return to Syria when their permit expires in order to limit people from taking advantage of Lebanon’s relatively stronger economy. Laws like these make it difficult for aid agencies to reach refugees, to provide assistance and protection, and to monitor their conditions.

While there is a common conception that refugees are a burden on a country’s economy, this is not necessarily true. For example, the Lebanese economy has grown rapidly over the past two years, with the World Bank estimating a three percent growth this year, despite an influx of more than one million refugees. An argument can be made that refugees are actually the reason that Lebanon has been able to withstand the negative economic effects of Syria’s civil war. A recent World Bank survey claims that a one percent increase in refugees’ population increases services exports from Lebanon by about 1.5 percent. A new UN report estimates a similar effect on the economy; every dollar spent on the humanitarian response adds an additional $0.50 to the economy.

Providing humanitarian aid to refugees in urban settings is far from ideal, and presents different challenges than typical refugee settlements. The shift to providing assistance to these urban environments is a steep learning curve, but is becoming increasingly important.  The best way to help refugees in cities is to support existing local authorities and local partner organizations to extend services like healthcare and education to refugees. To work effectively in cities, humanitarian and development actors have to invest time and resources to understand the dynamics of the urban environment and the complex social, political and economic background that exists. Refugees have the potential to have a positive impact on the economy as well as the culture of a country – they just need to receive adequate opportunities.


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