World Refugee Day: From refugee camps to urban citizenship?



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Yvain Bon


Today, we are joining UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in marking the International Refugee Day. As this official celebration is highlighting the international efforts made to improve the livelihoods of displaced persons escaping conflicts, the crisis in Syria and the latest reports from UNHCR point to our attention that every day, the number of forced displacements is increasing, breaking records last year at the global scale. While it is estimated that about 45.2 million people were in a situation of displacement in 2012, the reality of their situation is more complex than the one shown by the global media. While displaced families are mostly portrayed living in refugee camps, these precarious destinations are seldom a temporary shelter before returning home. Recent reports estimate that while one third of refugees are living in rural camps, the majority of displaced people are now living in urban areas.

Towns and cities are thus becoming the new major settlements for families whose homes have been destroyed and who fled conflict in their regions of origin, as urban environments appear to provide better access to jobs and public services than refugee camps. However, this promise is often shadowed by more unpleasant and complex realities. Refugees are still among the most vulnerable groups: upon arrival, most displaced persons lack the social networks that could guide them in accessing basic support and housing. In too many cases, refugees in cities are primarily exposed to abuses, extortion and human trafficking. This is often coupled with violent and xenophobic reactions from the local populations that force displaced people into the margins of society.

An important factor aggravating this situation is linked to the informal status displaced persons have in cities, as most authorities do not recognize or authorize their presence. As a consequence, refugees tend to keep a low profile in order to avoid expulsion or detention. This makes the outreach efforts and needs assessments of NGOs or International Organizations such as UNHCR very hard. The trend for most municipalities and national authorities remains in establishing a clear distinction between the services accessible to citizen of their cities and humanitarian assistance made available in camps only. Meanwhile, cities of the Global South such as Nairobi, Johannesburg, Abidjan or Khartoum see their population growing rapidly and getting more complex to manage on a daily basis. As refugees are accounting for the most important share of this population growth, it is time for local administrations to step up their efforts in assisting this most vulnerable group of people who have settled in their territories.  While national plans for action regarding refugees are a constant subject of negotiations with and between governments, cities need to find an autonomous way to take into account the displaced persons that are populating their districts. Currently, 81% of refugees are being hosted in developing countries, and metropolis, especially in the Global South, can be at the forefront of promoting sustainable models and solutions for addressing the increasingly urban nature of refugee settlements.

Municipality of Cuenca - Ecuador

In Latin America, initiatives are developed at the territorial level, which encompass the diversity of challenges encountered by migrants. The municipality of Cuenca in Ecuador for example is providing the same access to both migrants and refugees through Migration Centers. Such Casa del Migrante is an entry point whereby refugees not only gain awareness about the rights and the respect they are entitled to: they are also put in touch with local stakeholders who can help them establishing entrepreneurial activities and supporting their self reliance. Such initiatives are not isolated cases. The basis for the success of such actions is the political will to take responsibility over the needs of the local population, including refugees. The concept and the actions that follow rely on the recognition of refugees as human beings that are part of a society, and not as strangers that are passing by temporary or that can simply be isolated into neighboring camps.

These types of initiatives shed a positive light on the role of refugees in the host society and utilize better the cultural, social and economic contributions that refugees bring to cities and municipalities. They recognize that refugees can act as development agents by opening new markets to local goods, creating employment and filling empty employment niches.  Refugees can provide local communities with new skills and knowledge and furthermore expand access to transnational resources. These contributions, when recognized and valued by the host society, can infuse vitality, humanitarian values and multiculturalism into the cities in which refugees are resettled. Global cities with an important history of immigration, including those that originally came as refugees, emphasize multiculturalism as a key factor for their success and development.

A further element contributing to the success of such initiatives is the joint effort of many stakeholders. Positive synergies come from coordinating with organizations from the civil society who seek to assist refugees at the local level or with major international organization such as UNHCR who has a mandate to protect this particularly vulnerable group of people. Combining the capacities of cities and municipalities with the expertise of such actors can significantly improve the livelihoods and opportunities of refugees. When working together with these actors, municipalities can boost their efforts and go beyond the emergency support that is usually highlighted in the media.

We should thus focus on the present needs and livelihoods of refugees and displaced persons as human beings: this means recognizing that refugees are individuals and families who are struggling for the opportunity to overcome their past experience and build both a new life and a future, as any migrant would. Beyond the provision of refugee camps, host societies and municipalities have more responsibility and power than they usually admit.