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Chapter 1.3 Context

Forced displacement


People can be forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence, disasters and climate change. People who stay within the country they are resident in are called internally displaced persons (IDPs), while those who flee abroad are classed as refugees. The distinction is important: while refugees enjoy forms of globally recognised protection, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, IDPs are provided no such formal legal cover. Although there is a set of international standards focused on IDPs – The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 – unlike the Refugee Convention this does not have the force of a binding treaty.+See ‘Twenty Years of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’, Forced Migration Review, 59, October 2018 ( Further still, people may be stateless (and rendered deliberately so by the authorities in their home country), as is the case for the Rohingya in Myanmar. UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people were without a nationality or at risk of statelessness at the end of 2016.+A. Edwards, ‘Forced Displacement Worldwide at Its Highest in Decades’, UNHCR, 19 June 2017 (

This section outlines the scale of displacement. It discusses displacement and cities, and current thinking and practice in humanitarian responses to urban displacement. This section relates closely to a number of others in this review, including Section 1.4 on the most vulnerable, Section 1.5 on urban actors, Section 1.2.1 on conflict and Section 1.2.2 on violence.

1.3.1 The scale of displacement

Displacement from conflict, persecution and violence is at its highest level for 70 years. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2017 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide,+UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2018) ( a large proportion of them children. Nearly two-thirds (40 million people) are IDPs. Over 80% of refugees are in low- and middle-income countries, which are also experiencing the fastest rates of urbanisation. Countries in the Middle East have received high numbers of displaced people as a result of conflict and unrest following the 2010 Arab Spring, and the conflict in Syria in particular. Meanwhile, displacement from disasters is set to worsen, with increasing numbers of naturally-triggered disasters and increasing impacts of climate change (see Sections 1.2.3 and 1.2.4 respectively). In 2016 displacement from disasters was more than three times higher than from conflict and violence, with over 24 million people newly displaced in 118 countries+The equivalent figure for conflict was 6.9 million. IDMC, Global Report on Internal Displacement (Geneva: IDMC, 2017). (the annual average between 2007 and 2018 was over 25 million).+These are registered numbers from UNHCR; the actual figure may be as much as 30,000–40,000 higher.

Displacement is also increasingly an urban phenomenon: globally, it is thought that some 60% of refugees live in urban areas, rising to close to 80–90% in countries such as Jordan and Turkey.+World Bank, Cities of Refuge in the Middle East: Bringing an Urban Lens to the Forced Displacement Challenge, Policy Note (Washington DC: World Bank and GFDRR, 2017) (, p. 6. Over half of IDPs are also thought to be living in urban areas.+IDMC, Global Overview 2015: People Internally Displaced by Conflict and Violence (Geneva: IDMC, 2015) ( Once the crisis that caused their displacement has passed, people may choose not to return to their rural homes, preferring instead to stay in or move to cities in search of a better life; following the end of the civil war in Sudan, for example, almost 2 million South Sudanese from rural backgrounds returned to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, doubling the city’s population in the six years between 2005 and 2011.+IDMC, Global Report on Internal Displacement.

1.3.2 Urban displacement challenges

Issues displaced people may encounter in cities include:

  • The trauma of being uprooted, typically more than once, to different locations, often without a choice being involved.
  • Discrimination due to race, ethnicity or religion. Authorities may view displaced people from conflict settings as ‘terrorists’ or rebels.
  • Lack of official documentation, such as work permits or passports.
  • Few if any social networks.
  • Health and psychological issues, especially for newly-arrived displaced people who may have had arduous journeys.
  • Poor prospects of employment (if allowed to work at all in the formal sector), especially for people displaced from rural areas or with a low level of formal education, who may not have the skills to compete for work in the urban economy.
  • Where work permits are not allowed, such as for refugees, a reliance on the informal economy for work, often at reduced pay rates. Displaced people working in the informal economy can be vulnerable to abuse by their employers and risk being arrested.
  • Displaced women and girls may be at greater risk of sexual violence.+IRC, Violence in the City: A Systematic Review of the Drivers of Violence against Displaced Populations in Urban Crisis and Post-crisis Settings (London: IRC, 2017) (
  • Trafficking+For a powerful account, see P. Kangkun and J. Quinley, ‘Mass Atrocities and Human Trafficking: Rohingya Muslims on the Move’, Humanitarian Exchange, 73, October 2018 ( and modern-day slavery.
  • Arbitrary arrest, detention and eviction, especially if they lack the right documentation.
  • Uncertain timeframes, where displaced people may not return home for years or decades, or not at all.
  • Isolation. Refugee families may be dispersed across a city, living in a neighbourhood where they may not speak a common language or may feel stigmatised.
  • Due to lack of choice, many live in informal settlements, with overcrowding, poor access to services and the threat of eviction.

Rapid migration can have a substantial impact on cities. This includes increased pressure on land and services, more competition for jobs and potential risks of conflict between host and incoming populations over scarce resources, especially in poorer urban settlements. There can also be positive impacts, however. In Jordan, for instance, ‘there has been an increase in rental housing stock to meet Syrian demand, benefiting both the displaced and small landlords in host communities’.+World Bank, Cities of Refuge in the Middle East, p. 9. In Amman, the Greater Amman Municipality is actively supporting the start-up of refugee-owned businesses. Box 1.10 provides a helpful summary of the key impacts of urban displacement in cities. For further information on internal displacement, see IDMC’s website at, and ICRC, Displaced in Cities: Experiencing and Responding to Urban Internal Displacement Outside Camps (Geneva: ICRC, 2018), which provides case studies of displacement experiences in Baidoa in Somalia, Maiduguri in Nigeria, Mosul in Iraq and San Pedro Sula in Honduras (

1.3.3 Current practice

Humanitarian aid actors have been slow to recognise the ‘urbanisation of displacement’, with agencies and their mechanisms organised towards setting up and managing refugee and IDP camps.+It was only in 2009, for instance, that UNHCR updated its policy to consider urban areas. UNHCR’s 2009 policy on urban refugees states that it essentially applies the same principles as it would in camp settings, while recognising that cities are legitimate places for refugees to live, and that they need protection.+UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, September 2009 ( The 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps, which includes urban areas, expands on the 2009 policy, stating that the goal should be ‘working to remove such restrictions so that refugees have the possibility to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of the community, either from the beginning of displacement or as soon as possible thereafter’.+UNHCR, Policy on Alternatives to Camps, 2014 (, p. 4.

Box 1.10 Key impacts of urban displacement in cities

Source: IDMC, 2019 Global Report on Internal Displacement (Geneva: IDMC, forthcoming).

Other actors are also increasingly turning their attention to urban displacement. Specific recommendations from the Global Alliance for Urban Crises (GAUC), for example, include taking an area-based approach (see Section 3.2), supporting livelihoods and engaging in shelter provision (see Section 4.2).+GAUC, Forced Displacement in Urban Areas: What Needs To Be Done, October 2016 ( forced-displacement-urban-areas-what-needs-be-done). Concerning IDPs, recent research+A. Cotroneo, ‘Specificities and Challenges of Responding to Internal Displacement in Urban Settings’, International Review of the Red Cross, 99 (1), 2017 ( notes that identifying and reaching IDPs may be more difficult in a variegated, dense and complex urban environment, or where they choose to remain invisible for fear of persecution or hostility from host communities and the authorities. Displacement also brings with it protection concerns. One review by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) into the drivers of violence against displaced people in urban areas found that it took a number of forms, including verbal, physical and sexual violence. The research recommended programming that recognised women’s and girls’ particular susceptibility to violence; prioritising the legal status and documentation of displaced people; and improving the monitoring and reporting of sexual abuse (see Section 1.2.2 on urban violence, Section 1.4 on vulnerability and Section 4.7 on protection).+For further discussion on actors, see P. Sitko and A. Massella, Urban Displacement from Different Perspectives: An Overview of Approaches to Urban Displacement, GAUC, 2019 ( file/d/1o6VI0Iil1jaf0hcnx4nxUOAZ-kNyfEBw/view). See also A. Massella and P. Sitko, Protocol of Engagement between Local Governments and Humanitarian Actors, GAUC, January 2019 ( MqvwFWCY56EiSRg-Wp-DwP6dqh/view).

Box 1.11 Permit and non-permit refugees in Dar es Salaam

The Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam is home to tens of thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. Some have been in the city for nearly 40 years. Refugees are roughly identified as belonging to one of three groups: ‘permit refugees’, who have been registered and are allowed to live outside of camps; ‘non-permit refugees’, who may live in the city but do not have permission to do so; and non-registered migrants, who do not have refugee status. UNHCR, with a partner organisation, the Relief to Development Society (REDESO), and the government’s Department of Refugee Affairs provide financial and medical support to permit refugees. Non-permit refugees and those not registered do not qualify for support. Refugees are required to live in ‘designated areas’. However, ‘non-permit refugees’ are allowed to live in the city if they apply for and are granted a residence permit. The permit can be very expensive (up to $3,000). Permits have in effect been phased out: according to IRC, ‘none of these permits have been issued since 2012 … and previous permits have expired’.

Source: IRC, The Right to the City for Urban Displaced: A Review of the Barriers to Safe and Equal Access to the City for the Displaced Residents of Dar es Salaam (London: IRC, 2017) (, pp. 8–9.

Related to this, there have been regular calls for host authorities and communities to allow displaced people greater agency and rights, including ‘the free, active and meaningful participation of migrants, refugees and IDPs in urban decision-making processes and urban and spatial development’ and their inclusion in ‘national action plans and strategies, such as plans on the provision of public housing or national strategies to combat racism and xenophobia’.+UN-Habitat, ‘HABITAT III Issues Paper 2: Migration and Refugees in Urban Areas’, 3 June 2015 ( The New Urban Agenda, ratified at the HABITAT III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016, calls for ‘refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants, particularly the poorest and those in vulnerable situations’+The New Urban Agenda ( to enjoy equal rights to the city, including movement, access and non-discrimination (for example in equal access to housing and – where refugees are allowed to work – access to equal employment opportunities). Research by IRC+IRC, The Right to the City for Urban Displaced. on forcibly displaced people in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam identified the following principles for operational agencies:

  • Ensure that displaced people are aware of the services they are entitled to.
  • Be clear on how to fight discrimination towards displaced people and, within that, promote social cohesion between host and displaced populations.
  • Within a specific area, such as a neighbourhood, understand the different vulnerabilities of different groups.

Other recent research+World Bank, Cities of Refuge in the Middle East. into urban displacement and the responses of humanitarian aid organisation argues for a more developmental, long-term approach involving a wider range of actors. Recommendations include:

  • Address the needs of refugees and host communities equally, in terms of jobs and services.
  • Integrate civil society organisations into collaborative activities.
  • Work with and through national and local government.

Drawing on experience from the Middle East, Figure 1.5 illustrates the idea of taking a developmental approach to long-term urban displacement. Three overlapping stages are indicated: short-term emergency response; medium-term ‘development solutions’; and long-term efforts towards building urban resilience (see Section 2.3).

Figure 1.5 A development-oriented approach to urban displacement

Source: World Bank, Cities of Refuge in the Middle East: Bringing an Urban Lens to the Forced Displacement Challenge, Policy Note (Washington DC: World Bank and GFDRR, 2017)

As this example indicates, and as is repeated throughout this Good Practice Review, effective aid provision in cities needs to take a long-term view beyond an assumed response or recovery phase. At the same time, and particularly for people fleeing conflict, humanitarian response is mired in complexity and uncertainty, with difficult decisions to be made on the scale and duration of assistance.+Noting that a critical decision in urban humanitarian response (and generally) is when to withdraw assistance. See for example ALNAP’s urban lessons paper, lesson number one, concerning clear boundaries for urban humanitarian action (Sanderson and Knox-Clarke, 2012). Early efforts at protection are essential, as is assistance in securing livelihoods (to prevent people from sliding further into poverty) and finding adequate shelter and legal recognition (where relevant, such as the right to work or access social services). Above all, the goal should be the integration of new arrivals in the city. This concerns in particular the leadership of city authorities in enacting measures to achieve this (such as ensuring newly-arriving displaced people have equal access to services), as well as civil society organisations and others, such as faith-based organisations, which are often active in providing immediate support, such as food banks and clothing.