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Refugees of Today Are Essentially an Urban Phenomenon


The rising trend of refugees has been observed globally from 2002 to 2006 (UNHCR 2007). The migratory trend of refuges crossing international borders is expected to increase in the years to come (Moses, 2006). The number of refugees registered with UNHCR has risen from 9.9 million to 11.7 million in 2007 (UNHCR 2008). Apart from the concern of refugee influx, the more acute concern is regarding the migration of the refugees in urban areas. It is estimated that half of the refugees in 2007 migrated and now resided in urban areas (UNHCR 2008). Further, an unprecedented increase in the influx of refugees in urban areas has been observed in the recent past (Obi and Crisp 2000, Koser 2007, UNHCR 2008). Further, migration of refugees is mostly from rural to urban areas (Koser 2007). Urban migration will pose severe space and development crunches in the cities round the globe. Hence, this calls for the question of urban migration to be analyzed more critically. This paper aims to understand the demographic nature of the urban refugees, the challenges they pose in terms of settlement and financial arrangements and recommendations as to how they can be handled.

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Urban Refugees

Before we further deal with the subject it is important to define what is meant by refugees and urban refugees. Refugees refer to individuals granted complementary forms of protection or those enjoying “temporary protection” (UNHCR 2008). So the people who are migrating to the urban areas are referred to as urban refugees. According to an UNHCR report, urban refugees and asylum seekers include a varied array of people. But it must be made clear that not all of these people are genuine refugees. These migrated people include “the opportunistic, the well educated, the better resourced, and the mal-adjusted, the marginalized, the outcast, and the most desperate” (Buscher 2003, 2). It should be noted since the 1960s that urban refugees differ from rural refugees in their background, their pattern of movement, needs and expectations. Urban refugees thus, were identified as a much smaller group of refugees who were educated and had left their country with a definite plan it further their education which they will not be able to do in their homeland (Karadawi and Woodward, 1999).

There is a perceptual difference between the perception of refugees and urban refugees. Refugees have always been a cause of antipathy and xenophobia among people. The idea was that refugee settlements engulf a lot of resourceful public investment at the cost of tax payer’s money (Marcelli, 2001). The conservative view regarding refugees was that they were a public liability and there was no benefit to hosting refugees and that their mere presence results in only negative consequences for receiving communities. Hence, urban refugees have attracted far less academic attention than their rural counterparts have. As stated by Jacobsen (2002), “While refugees impose a variety of security, economic and environmental burdens on host countries, they also embody a significant flow of resources in the form of international humanitarian assistance, economic assets, and human capital” (577). The study is true but it cannot be ignored that the focus of her study was rural refugees and largely neglects the potential benefits of urban refugees. But this traditional view of the refugee burden has changed, an alternative view of refugees as resourceful and beneficial to the host state has emerged (Marcelli 2001, Sienkiewicz 2007). The essential difference arises from how the two are defined. Refugees are people who have been dislocated from their homeland not voluntarily but due to circumstances, but refugees in urban areas are voluntary and arise with a plan to gain something productive, like education.

Urban Refugees – Data

The 2005 UNHCR data shows that the migration of refugees was less than that of the rural areas or in camps which was just 18 percent of the total refuge movement worldwide in 2005 (UNHCR, 2006) The 2006 UNHCR Report identified over 1,100 different locations, including over 310 camps/centres and 460 urban locations, hosting an estimated 13.4 million persons of concern or 41 per cent out of the 32.9 million total populations under the Office’s competency. Among the 13.4 million persons reported, 3.7 million live in camps, 5.1 million in urban areas, and 4.6 million in rural areas dispersed among the local population. The type of location was unclear or unknown for about 58 per cent of the population of concern to UNHCR.

Table 1: Locational Concentration of refugees in 2006. Source: UNHCR, 2007

 Locational Concentration of refugees in 2006
Figure 1. Locational Concentration of refugees in 2006

Further if we analyse table 1, we see that the percentage of refugees in the rural areas is more in regions which are less developed like that in central and eastern Africa and Asia. But in case of developed regions like that of Europe and the Americas the influx is more in urban areas. So this data cannot conclusively say that the refugee migration is essentially an urban phenomenon.

We further discuss the data from the UNHCR trend report for 2007 which shows that out of the 166 countries surveyed for refugees; in more than half the countries the migration of refugees was more in urban areas than in rural or in camps. Further, in 38 percent of the countries the migration of refugees was only in urban areas. This shows that migration of refugees today is essentially an urban phenomenon. Hence we see that the migration of refugees to urban areas is a more recent phenomenon.

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Characteristics of Urban Refugees

The numbers of urban refugees are always disputed as the number is difficult to ascertain. One of the major cause is often misunderstood and misperceptions regarding migrant workers and urban refugees. The UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defined Migrants as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged, or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national” (UN 1990). Even though the UN and other international organization differentiate between migrant workers and urban refugees, they are usually categorized as unwanted foreign nationals.

Among urban refugees two distinct groups has been identified in many studies. First identified group are refugees with urban origins and the send are refugees from rural areas. On the basis of their origin, their flight patens differ. Rural refugees tend to migrate as a group with their entire clan, whereas refugees from urban areas tend to escape “individually or in very small groups” (Kibreab 1996). This flight pattern is said to affect the type of asylum the individual is likely to take (Sienkiewicz, 2007).

Research has shown an increased number of refugees in urban areas. Rogge (1985) believe that an increased number of rural African refugees are migrating to the cities and are urbanizing. Thus, “refugees no longer cease their migratory flight in rural areas across the border in their country of asylum but continue the migration all the way to towns and cities.” (Rogge 1985, 128) It has been identified by researchers that believe that the flights to the urban areas by refugees are usually illegal and clandestine (Sommers,  2000).

Now the question arises why there has been an increasing trend of an urban pull-factor? The reasons behind urban drift are manifold. One potent reason is financial. The belief of higher job opportunities and higher wage rates in urban areas is one of the reasons. As Kibreab’s (1996) study found that “annual incomes are higher in the urban areas than in the rural areas even for unskilled workers” (160). Apart from financial reasons, there are other concerns like educational opportunity; medical facilities, etc have made urban areas more sought after destination (Sienkiewicz 2007). Further relative unattractiveness of rural areas or humanitarian aid group camps which are high population density, increased levels of unemployment, drought and subsequent low yields and abject poverty in rural settings have led refugees to seek the alternative lifestyles of urban living (Kibreab 1996).

Moreover, there are apparent flaws in the design of UN operated camps and settlement schemes. These refugee camps huddle all refugees together and make them go through same policy of resettlement and relocation programs irrespective of their occupational and cultural background (Kibreab, 1996). This policy has turned out to be insufficient as many refugees coming from urban areas, unable to familiarize with this alien atmosphere, choose to migrate to the cities. As Kibreab (1996) states this is the reason why urban refugees are “[growing] in defiance of host-government policies and, consequently, remain outside the purview of the international assistance and protection regime”.

Problems Faced by Urban Refugees

Refugees migrating to urban areas, despite their beliefs, face far greater challenges than those who flock to UN or host government refugee camps and settlements. The latter in the UN camps are provided with basic amenities such as food, water, and shelter, urban refugees perforce have to become self-sufficient in order to live in cities. As very few of the refugees have proper identifications and official documents (as many are illegal) they Lacking proper identification papers, they must find employment and perpetually face the fear of being deported by authorities or be detained (Bailey, 2004). Further, their inability to avail credit or open bank accounts makes the situation of urban refugees worse than refugees in camps as because urban refugees have to pay even for their basic amenities like shelter and food (Sienkiewicz,  2007).

Urban refugees are more susceptible to the exploitations of local employers, landlords, and businessmen (Buscher 2003). Further, they are usually paid less than locals with equivalent qualifications are as well as have to pay more as house rent (Sienkiewicz, 2007). Landau and Jacobsen (2004) studied urban refugee migration in Johannesburg showed that crime on migrants was more than that on South Africans. Their study revealed that “almost three-quarters (72 percent) of the migrants surveyed reported that they or someone they live with has been a victim of crime, compared with 43 percent of South Africans (who have spent most of their lives in the country)” (Landau and Jacobsen, 45). On crosschecking their study data with administration statistics, they found that refugees are most often the victims of crime and are seldom the perpetrators and they commit less crime as they are in a constant state of fear of being caught or deported. Hence, it may be concluded that it is the presence of migrants that increases crime rate but not vice versa.

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Another problem that urban refugees face is unavailability of financial assistance from banks. Most of the host countries by policy do not permit refugees to open bank accounts or receive loans. Due to the lack of a safe place to store money make the migrants, especially the affluent ones, easy targets for “mugging and theft” (Landau and Jacobsen 2004, 46). In addition to being victims of crime, the migrants are unable to “pursue entrepreneurial initiatives” due to unapproachable banks abstains them from engaging in economic activities that benefit both themselves and the state (Landau and Jacobsen 2004, 46).

Further, there has been an observed social aversion regarding the migrants. They are considered as the ones who take away the job of the locals and/or reside on the local tax payers’ money. This anti-migrant feeling usually make the refuges social pariahs and they remain in close nit grows of people who share the same condition as refugees.

Hence, we see that even though urban refugees have equal or higher skill as the citizens of host countries, they have to face discrimination from the administration as well as the society. Refugees pre-eminently are stereotyped and subjected to discrimination. Not only have people in the Western countries generally interiorized a national consciousness which makes them consider it normal that there are foreigners, “people who do not have the same rights as we do,” (Kristeva, 1991). Their position as refugees curbs their growth due to innumerable policies against migrants.

Urban Refugee a Problem for Policymakers?

In order to understand refugee settlement from the point of view of social inclusion it is observed that policies for resettlement become an ever increasing problem (Omidvar and Richmond 2003 ). Immigrants have helped shape the urban environment of many countries like the African countries (Sienkiewicz 2007, Sommers, 2000), Canada (Omidvar and Richmond 2003 ), etc. such influx has created a pressure on host governments to provide housing, neighbourhood and street life, the delivery of municipal services, urban politics and cultural life. The urban refugees have dispersed their residences and developed and transformed their neighbourhoods, laying claim to public space, challenging cultural traditions, creating organizations and getting involved in civic politics (Omidvar and Richmond, 2003 ).

Further the UN has also recognized the need to expand their refugee camps from rural to urban areas and promising urban settlement (Sienkiewicz 2007). Increasingly researchers have emphasized on the point that “camp” settlements for refugees posed negative effects from social, economic, environmental and health reasons, not only for the refugees but also for the citizens of the host country (Black 1998). Thus, urban settlement is a policy that the UN and host countries have started to deliberate.

But one problem that has been identified in case of refugee settlement in developed countries like the US and Canada is that there is an increase in radicalization of poverty in the urban areas (Omidvar and Richmond 2003 , Frey and Farley 1996). But this too shows the stereotyping that refugees have been painted with (Black, 1998) and has enforced restrictive policies towards refugees in various countries like Sudan, Kenya, Canada, etc. (Sienkiewicz, 2007).

But what is important to understand is that urban refugees are self-sufficient. As has been observed by Landau and Jacobson (2004), urban immigrants in Jonesburg were qualified and skilled individuals. Even though many refugees are seen as reluctant to work, the reason behind their reluctance is the hope of relocation (Kibreab, 1996).

Advantages of Urban Refugees

Refugees in urban areas have been assessed as valuable asset to the society if policymakers remove the restrictions placed on them though another study associates reggae productivity to their legal status, which implies that if they are illegal immigrants, then their productivity index shows a downturn (Passel and Fix 1994). Host countries note that the influx of registered refugees is likely to lead to improvements in the overall development in the region (Passel and Fix). Further, the humanitarian aid that flows into the region cannot be complete differentiated between the needs of refugees and the needs of the native population and that locals must be “‘among the beneficiaries of refugee-related development projects’” as has been stated by UNHCR (Chambers 1986, 258). For proper identification of refugees in urban areas, it would be necessary to have a more accurate estimate of refugees in urban areas. Till such time, the distribution of aids will spill over to locals too. As the humanitarian aids cover the most basic services, such as infrastructure improvements, supplemental health programs, and educational facilities, most of the host nations benefit from them (Sienkiewicz, 2007).

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Education level among urban refugees tends to be higher than that of the local city population. Landau and Jacobsen (2004) found that “migrants have higher levels of education and are more skilled [with] 22 [percent having] finished tertiary education or [having] earned a post-graduate degree, compared to 14 [percent] for South Africans” (44). The study further demonstrated that an additional 9 percent of refugees had work experience in professional fields such as medicine, law, and accounting before they arrived in Johannesburg. These individuals “could help fill the acute skills gap facing the inner city” (Landau and Jacobsen 2004, 46). It is apparent that a large number of migrants and refugees specifically fled to South Africa to take advantage of the availability of skilled professions. The country experienced a brain drain in the mid-1990s and since has had trouble filling professional jobs. As long as South Africa’s policies continue to exclude foreigners from the workplace, urban refugees will remain an untapped source of skilled labor.

In a study of Somali refugees settling in Nairobi in 1990s, showed that they were “were successful businessmen and brought with them entrepreneurial experience and capital” (Campbell 2006, 404). Further, the Ethiopian refugees who migrated to Nairobi were fluent in English, and had prior business experience (Campbell 2005). Further, the refugees in various other regions belonged to the middle and upper classes, their resources, and skills remained underutilized due to restrictive policies (Sienkiewicz, 2007). Additionally, refugees frequently offer diverse skill sets. Apart from their educational qualification, refugees came with diverse skills such as sewing skills and unique wood carving techniques (Jacobsen, 2002). These refugees often turned to be more efficient due to different cultural techniques, refugees could potentially teach locals new skills and efficient ways of completing various tasks.

A policy change towards refugees will help the host governments as well as the refugees. The governments will benefit from the distribution and sale of essential work permits to refugees (Sienkiewicz 2007). In a way the traditional fear of urban refugees intruding in to the profit of the locals is proven wrong when the worries of refugee businessmen in Eastleigh, who must abide by strict regulations, pay taxes, and purchase permits, is voiced “about less regulated refugee businesses cutting into their profit margins” (Campbell 2006, 404). What should be done here is to legalize the business activities in the regions so as to the whole community may benefit from the business activities of the refugees.

Further, entrepreneurial activities by refugees are capable of contributing to the host country’s economy by employing locals. This trend has been observed in Nairobi’s Eastleigh. These refugees offer goods at the lowest possible prices, the Somali refugee businessmen have successfully expanded their customer base (Campbell, 2006). I order to facilitate their growing business Somali have had to employ Kenyans. As the unemployment rate in Kenya is very high, and mostly the labors are unskilled, the natives welcome any opportunity for employability (Campbell). Thus in Eastleigh, cooperation between the host country population and the refugees has created extensive employment opportunities.

The trend of employing locals has been extended in South Africa too. 34 percent of migrants in Johannesburg have hired locals to do some of their task sometime within the duration of their stay, whereas only 20 percent of South Africans have reported working for refugees (Landau and Jacobsen, 2004). Furthermore, 67 percent of the employees hired by refugees in South Africa are locals (Landau and Jacobsen, 2004). The employment opportunities for locals, due to refugees doing business supplies, will increase immensely if policies towards immigrants were made less restrictive. The need for translators alone would be enough to employ numerous local citizens (Sienkiewicz 2007). Presently, as current immigration policies hold immigrants as illegal, they are not in a position to contract the locals in their businesses.

The above discussion show that the urban refugee influx has the potential of bringing economic prosperity to a region by extending their education, skill, and business prosperity towards the betterment of the region. Surely, these refugees are in a position to enhance the economic livelihood of the state. This has been demonstrated by the case of Kenya in the above paragraphs. As has been observed by Campbell (2005) the urban refugees in Kenya have become “self-sufficient entrepreneurs” who have contributed to “infrastructural development,” “retail growth,” and local employment.


The discussion paper on urban refugees shows that the trend of urban influx of refugees has been present forever, but the trend has gained greater prominence in the present years. Even though there are opportunities for refugees to settle for free basic necessities provided by UN camps, refugees prefer to settle in urban areas as it holds more promises than life in camps (Black 1998). Clearly there has been an increasing trend in urban refugee migration and this has made the erstwhile policy of governments which restricted refugees and prevented their social inclusion needs to be reviewed as migrants in urban areas, unlike refugees in rural areas, have the potential to contribute positively to the economy in various ways. The paper also discusses the problems that urban refugees pose to policy makers as they tend to increase criminal activities in the cities and there is seen a trend of radicalization of economic inequality. But once the restrictive natures of policies curbing the economic freedom of refugees are elevated, the inequality can be easily be done with.

In conclusion it can be stated that even though the trend of refugee influx in urban areas are high, the interests of urban refugees and host countries can be viewed as compatible. Refugees migrate to urban areas to seek to acquire self-sufficiency and stability, and the host country seeks to enhance their economic abilities by increasing productivity it eh nation with inflow of skilled human capital. Considering previous research on educational background of urban refugees, it is clear that they posses’ education and skill to become productive partners to the host state. Thus, it may be recommended that less harsh polices on refugees should be devised in order to improve the plight of urban refugees.


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