A young refugee looks away as her parents usher her onwards in a line of refugees fleeing Mosul, Iraq.
More than ever, refugees are leaving their homes and ending up in unfamiliar urban areas. Reuters Photographer/Reuters

More refugees than ever are resettling in urban areas—particularly in the developing world. The humanitarian sector needs to support these cities.

This week, the Bangladeshi and Burmese government reached an agreement to repatriate millions of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, where they risk horrific persecution and genocide. It’s been a year since the refugees crossed the border seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh, and became one of the world’s largest displaced populations.

Only three years ago, millions of Syrians and Iraqis escaping ISIS and civil war knocked on the gates of Europe, seeking shelter. Even now, a small group of Central American refugees snake their way north through Mexico, seeking a better life for themselves.

Globally, displaced persons are arriving in new countries, cities and lands, and the international community is struggling to address the humanitarian impacts of the situation. As national politicians worldwide spread misinformation and fear about displaced populations, cities are quietly on the front lines, meeting the needs of displaced populations. That’s the subject of a new report from the International Rescue Committee, that points to cities, particularly cities in the Global South, as the primary and most effective supporters of displaced people.

In the last half-century, worldwide refugee populations have grown increasingly urban. Whereas the very mention of refugees often brings to mind large-scale, quickly built camps meant to temporarily house people, the reality is much more long-term and much more urban. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s roughly 20 million refugees live in urban areas, and in the last 20 years, the average span of somebody’s time as a refugee—a person who cannot return to her home or is afraid to do so—has grown from 10 to 20 years.

But the report suggests that the international infrastructure built to support refugees—multi-national organizations, humanitarian groups and NGOs—still hasn’t caught up to these new realities.

“We need to work with municipal governments hosting refugees and find out how we can best support them in those efforts rather than taking on those efforts ourselves,” said Samer Saliba, the IRC’s urban advisor who co-wrote the report.

He’s not the first to say it, either. Last year, city leaders from throughout the world wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees urging him to seek out and integrate urban leaders’ perspectives on integrating and serving displaced people. And while the resulting Global Compact for Refugees did include urban perspectives, it’s time to move into action, Saliba argues, and to take a particular focus on the cities that house the most refugees.

This refugee camp is made up of hundreds of nearly identical white tents in neat rows.
Rural refugee camps have long captured the attention of humanitarian observers, but far more displaced people live in cities today than ever before. (James Akena/Reuters)

The report focuses on about 25 cities around the world, laying out services, policies, and setbacks they’ve faced in addressing a large scale influx of refugees. The clearest finding: Cities with more resources tend to have more inclusive infrastructure to support refugees. Another clear finding: There’s a lot of room for the international humanitarian community to take a bigger role in helping cities secure funding, policy ideas, and plans.

Cities in the developing world, in particular, are not only eager and willing partners to international support efforts, but they are more in need. One stark section of the report, for example, compares refugee-focused programs in Los Angeles to Kampala, Uganda.

The country, recently featured in The New York Times for its inclusive approach to serving refugees in its countryside, holds 1.25 million displaced people from all over Africa and the world. Many of them are in its largest city, Kampala,  but the city has found itself struggling to keep apace with the 100,000 and growing refugee population. Just five years ago, the city housed only half as many refugees.

The city, which has dubbed itself “Kampala for all,” created and hosted an international forum, inviting other leaders from the developing world to collaborate on solutions surrounding integrating growing refugee populations. “There is a clarity on what needs to be done,” Innocent Silver, Kampala’s Capital City Authority project manager, told the IRC. “But until those plans are funded, they don’t mean much.”

This experience is starkly different from the experiences in cities like Los Angeles and New York. In both cities, municipal governments have set aside significant funds to create workshops, legal support, and job trainings for displaced people, yet L.A. estimates it has fewer than 1,000 refugees living within its borders; New York City, meanwhile, welcomed 164 resettled refugees in 2017. And both cities expect fewer to come as U.S. national politics make it more difficult for refugees to come to this country. According to Saliba, cities like these have much greater access to international humanitarian groups, funds and decision makers.

“There’s a false assumption that city governments in the developed world are more appropriate partners than those in the developing world,” Saliba said.

Part of that is because examples of how western cities have dealt with growing refugee populations have been treated as heroic, adds Saliba. Since Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to Syrian asylum seekers in 2014, 55,000 displaced people have relocated to Hamburg, Germany. In response, the city expanded its social housing program by more than 17,000 beds in just two and a half years, for example. But Saliba points out that there’s a different way people speak about refugees who are in the west, and those who aren’t, particularly when it came to the 2014 refugee migration into Europe.

“When it happens to Europe, it’s called a crisis,” he said. “Whereas Lebanon is hosting [one million] refugees alone.” That’s one purpose of this report: To highlight the work cities that the international community may overlook are doing to address displaced populations, and the shortcomings that could be fixed.

Examples from the report abound of small-scale partnerships between developing cities and humanitarian organizations. The IRC has partnered with Amman, Jordan, to create community centers that serve both refugees and Jordanian residents, instead of creating programs separately. In Peshwar, Pakistan, municipal leaders work with UNICEF to respond to refugee needs both in nearby camps and within the city’s borders. Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, relies on local NGOs to help support over 30,000 refugees.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years but the reason for writing this report is that we can’t keep having this conversation without including those cities that have been marginalized,” Saliba said.

Municipal authorities, by providing housing, healthcare, education, skills training, and social services to their residents are uniquely positioned to serve displaced populations—in large part, it only involves expanding existing services (though the report does emphasize that some refugee-specific services are important to creating inclusive cities). And, to a large degree, they’re already doing that, or trying. They just may need a bit of support.

“When we talk about what cities are already doing,” Saliba said, “it recognizes that action is happening on the ground.”

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