Urban refugees

Urban refugees

Globally, more people live in urban than rural areas. in 2018, about 55 per cent of the world’s population was urban, compared with only 30 per cent in 1950. However, this figure masks important differences, with urbanisation most common in developed regions such as north America and Europe.

About half the population of Asia is urban, as is 43 per cent of Africa. The refugee population reflects these global changes, both in terms of the regions from which refugees originate and the areas to which they move in countries of asylum.

About 17.5 million refugees worldwide don’t live in camps, but live in urban areas. The 2018 World Refugee Council report shows that 60% of all refugees and 80% of all internally displaced persons are living in urban areas.

The overwhelming majority of refugees living in urban areas are to be found in the poorest and more conflict-affected regions of the world. Africa and Asia concentrate the highest number of urban refugee populations. Some war-affected countries host a huge number of both urban internally displaced people and refugees in capital cities (such as Kampala or Khartoum). Urban refugees also live in the main cities of their country of origin: after protracted exile, many returnees prefer settling back as IDPs in cities and towns of their own country upon return.

An urban refugee is a refugee who decided or was obliged to settle in an urban area rather than in a refugee camp in the country or territory where the person fled to. More than 60% of the world's refugee population and 80% of internally displaced persons (IDP) under UNHCR mandate live in urban environments. In 2009, their number was around 5.5 million people. "Urban refugee" is not a recognised legal term in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, the UNHCR has adopted a 'Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas' in 2009.

Urban refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in low income countries. According to UNHCR, the urban refugee population worldwide is very diverse, comprising a large number of women, children, and older people who have particular protection challenges. The urban refugee population face specific protecting needs attendant to urban environments: they may lack access to services, health, education and are often confronted to xenophobic attitudes in their country of asylum.

Since around 2017, the UNHCR prioritises urban refugees for resettlement over those refugees living in refugee camps. In Kenya, for example, only refugees living in Nairobi are submitted for resettlement places, and not those refugees living in Kakuma or Dadaab.

The humanitarian response to urban refugee crises and the impact on the country of asylum reflect important differences in housing, infrastructure, services delivery, and the economic and social fabric of urban versus rural host communities. Unlike a camp, cities allow refugees to live autonomously and find employment or economic opportunities. But there are also dangers, risks and challenges. Refugees may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest or detention, and can be forced to compete with the poorest local workers for the worst jobs.

Thus, understanding the key trends in urbanisation of refugee movements is crucial to ensuring appropriate and integrated policies to meet the needs and improve the lives of both refugees and host communities. UNHCR works to maximise the skills, productivity and experience that displaced populations bring to urban areas, striving to help displaced people find the safety and security they deserve. This, in turn, helps to stimulate economic growth and development within host communities, while enhancing universal access to human rights.

Of critical importance too is the different range and profile of responses to the challenges of urban refugee situations. This is fully recognised in the Global Compact on Refugees which makes explicit reference to their important role. Drawing on experiences and insights gained since the adoption of its urban refugee policy, UNHCR has operationalised innovative and networked approaches to promote the inclusion of refugees into urban life, most notably the Cities of Solidarity initiative.87 This has recognised the leadership of municipal authorities in promoting positive interventions that enable socio- economic integration. The December 2018 High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges in urban situations provided a rich opportunity for municipal authorities to showcase the diversity of their responses in welcoming refugees.

In 2018, the proportion of the refugee population that was urban-based was estimated at 61 per cent globally. The data coverage on location of refugees is variable and covers 56 per cent of the refugee population. Given that the coverage is poorest in high-income countries and in order not to bias the results towards lower-income and more rural countries of asylum, where 75 per cent or more of a national population in a country of asylum was urban, it was assumed that hosted refugees would be urban.

The largest urban refugee population was in Turkey where the vast majority of refugees were reported to be living in urban or peri-urban areas, other than the 137,000 Syrian refugees living in temporary accommodation centres (4 per cent). The urban-rural breakdown was not reported for the Syrian refugees under the Government of Turkey’s Temporary Protection Regulation, but given the high level of urbanisation in the country (75 per cent), it was assumed that the majority of refugees would be urban while some are also living among in rural and semi-rural areas.

Similarly, Germany reported an urban refugee population of more than 1 million given that more than three quarters of the country’s population live in urban areas. Among countries that reported the urban-rural breakdown, Pakistan reported an urban refugee population of 957,900, representing 68 per cent of the refugee population, nearly all of whom originated in Afghanistan. Likewise, the Islamic Republic of Iran reported an urban refugee population of 949,600, again mostly Afghan, nearly 97 per cent of the country’s refugee population.

Similarly, the largest urban refugee population in 2018 originated from Syria with 6.3 million people, representing 98 per cent of the entire population for which location was known. This was followed by the Afghan refugee population, which stood at 2.1 million in urban areas, representing 82 per cent of the entire population, again for which location was reported. 

The urban refugee population differed in its demographic characteristics from rural populations. More than two thirds of rural refugee populations were under 18 years of age, compared with 48 per cent of urban refugee populations. Among the adult population, there was a higher proportion of men in urban refugee populations (58 per cent) than in rural refugee populations (47 per cent). 

Bearing in mind the issues with data availability and accuracy, the data indicated a rise in the proportion and numbers of the urban refugee population in the twenty- first century. At the start of the century, most refugees were camp-based or in rural settings. From 2006, the proportion increased significantly and reached 61 per cent by 2018. The influx of Syrian refugees since 2012 caused the absolute numbers of urban refugees to more than double.


IMAGE CREDIT: UNHCR / Diego Ibarra Sanchez 

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