During the past five years, growing attention has been given to the situation of urban refugees, much of it stimulated by the release of UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas. But now, the spotlight is being turned on another phenomenon, that of internally displaced people (IDPs) in urban areas. In October 2013, for example, the Brookings LSE Project on Internal Displacement published a report on this issue, observing that “while urban environments often provide a conducive setting for internally displaced persons to rebuild their lives, they also present important protection, development and security challenges.”
In many senses, this is a very logical and progressive development. It is well known that in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia, large numbers of people flee from the violence that is taking place in the countryside and take up residence in cities and towns in order to find better security and alternative livelihoods opportunities.
The Afghan capital of Kabul, for example, has been growing at a rate of almost five per cent in recent years, and much of that growth is the result of an influx of people displaced by armed conflict. Many of them live in dire conditions in informal settlements dotted around the outskirts of the city, deprived of the basic necessities of life.
In February 2012, the New York Times revealed that more than 20 IDP children, all of them less than five years old, had frozen to death in Kabul, where they lived in tents and mud-walled shacks with plastic roofs.
Humanitarian officials in Afghanistan explained how this situation had arisen. The IDP settlements did not qualify for development aid because they were regarded as temporary facilities, and because many Afghan officials were opposed to their presence. Providing assistance to their residents, it was thought, would simply encourage the IDPs to remain there and attract new arrivals from rural Afghanistan.
At the same time, and because the settlements had been established a decade previously, they did not qualify for emergency assistance. According to the head of one local NGO, “they don’t have access to anything: health, education, food, sanitation, water. They don’t even have an opportunity for survival.”
There is an evident need to ensure that such scenarios are not repeated, whether in Afghanistan or in any other war-affected country. But there is also a need for a degree of care when targeting programs at urban IDPs.
It is not always easy to differentiate urban IDPs from other poor rural-to-urban migrants. Indeed, many of the people who are described as urban IDPs in cities such as Kabul, Bogota (Colombia) and Mogadishu (Somalia) have moved not only to escape from armed conflict, but also because their livelihoods have become unsustainable and because they have been affected by natural disasters such as floods and drought.
In cities such as these, very large numbers of people, whether displaced are not, are living side-by-side, confronted with the same daily challenge of eking out a living in the informal sector of the economy. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that displaced people are confronted with some specific challenges.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, for example, IDPs in the Congolese city of Goma, “cite greater housing safety and security as a reason to move to the city, but their actual accommodation status in the city is often precarious. IDPs frequently have low tenure security in Goma. Low rates of property ownership, lack of written lease agreements and an often indeterminate contract duration means that the tenure arrangements of IDPs are highly insecure, leaving IDPs at risk of forced eviction, harassment and other threats.”
A further dilemma derives from the fact that some of the people who feel obliged to move from rural to urban areas, especially those from minority groups and those associated with particular political factions, may not wish to be identified as ‘urban IDPs’. In Colombia, for example, such people are often stigmatized, and so they prefer to remain anonymous rather than being labeled as a displaced person.
Given these complexities, how can humanitarian organizations address the phenomenon of urban displacement?
First, emergency assistance must be available to the most vulnerable IDPs, host families and other urban residents. And as a matter of principle, the concern that such assistance might act as a ‘pull factor’ for additional IDPs and rural-to-urban migrants should not be an obstacle to action. It is clearly unconscionable for babies and toddlers to be dying because their parents cannot afford to buy fuel wood or erect weatherproof shelters.
Second, community-based development assistance is required, so as to ensure that all urban residents, irrespective of whether they have been displaced or not, are able to benefit from adequate services, infrastructure and livelihoods opportunities, especially those living in slums, shanty towns and informal settlements.
Third, targeted interventions are required to address the specific protection risks encountered by urban IDPs, such as those that have arisen in the case of Goma.
And finally, there must be full respect for the wishes of those people who have moved to cities and towns in order to escape from armed conflict and other forms of violence, but who prefer not to be categorized as an IDP.