This chapter looks at the challenges of rethinking UNHCR’s response to refugees in urban areas. The chapter begins with a description of UNHCR’s evolving policy on urban refugees, goes on to outline the particular protection challenges in cities and then describes UNHCR’s adapted operations and good practices. It concludes that broader partnerships and adequate funding will be needed to address these challenges.

IDPs walking to a UNHCR-supported learning centre in Soacha, Colombia.

IDPs walking to a UNHCR-supported learning centre in Soacha, Colombia.

As the world becomes urbanized, refugees and displaced people increasingly live in cities and towns too. It is difficult to know the precise number of refugees, returnees and IDPs who live in urban areas. But these populations are diverse, including single young men, women, children and older people, as well as some highly vulnerable people.

Refugees and displaced people frequently struggle to survive in impoverished and crowded city neighbourhoods, where governments provide few basic services and communities resent their presence. They are often obliged by state policies to remain in camps. In some cities, their presence is accelerating urbanization and transforming the composition of populations.

UNHCR’s evolving policy

In 1997, UNHCR formulated its first policy on urban refugees. The policy acknowledged that refugees have a right to freedom of movement under international law, but it implied that flows of refugees to cities were undesirable and reflected the priority of placing refugees in camps. The policy was criticized by advocacy groups, and UNHCR evaluations that found its implementation was inconsistent and its effects were often damaging. From 2003, UNHCR’s response to the exodus of Iraqi refugees prompted new thinking that led to the policy on urban refugees.

In 2009, UNHCR adopted a new Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas. The policy is rights-based and refugee-respecting, and commits to advocating for the expansion of ‘protection space’ in cities. The policy emphasizes that UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities towards refugees are universal and do not depend on a refugee’s place of residence. It also stresses UNHCR’s Age, Gender and Diversity policy.

In December 2009, High Commissioner Guterres devoted his annual Dialogue on Protection Challenges to refugees and other people of concern living in urban areas. A key aim was to foster cooperation with new partners, and especially municipalities. The High Commissioner also made a commitment to evaluate UNHCR’s programmes for refugees in multiple cities, and to progressively implement the new policy worldwide.

IDPs waiting for work on a street in Kabul,Afghanistan.

IDPs waiting for work on a street in Kabul,Afghanistan.

Protection risks

Refugees in urban areas face a wide range of protection risks: prohibitions on movement and residence; lack of documentation; threat of arrest and detention; harassment and exploitation; hunger; inadequate shelter; limited access to formal health and education systems; vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to HIV/AIDS; and human smuggling and trafficking.


Refugees who lack documentation in urban areas face many protection problems. They struggle to sign a lease, cash a cheque, receive remittances or obtain credit; they also live in fear of state actors and remain vulnerable to arrest, detention, solicitation of bribes and intimidation. Providing them with documents attesting to identity and status can help to prevent or resolve such problems; and where state authorities do not issue identity documentation, UNHCR issues its own identification and status documents. Yet states often impose tight restrictions on movement and residence for refugees, threatening the application of the new policy in some countries.


Refugees and displaced people in urban environments face particular housing and property challenges. Many refugees and IDPs are forced to settle on peripheral land which is unsuitable for residential development, exposed to risks of natural disasters and insecure of tenure. Refugees, IDPs and returnees compete in the low-cost housing market, but they rarely have enough money for a deposit or adequate local references. They are frequently exploited by landlords.


Refugees in many cities face difficulties in obtaining health care, and many refugees suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Since 2009, UNHCR has developed a strategy to improve access to health services for urban refugees and other people of concern. At the same time, some refugees and IDPs in cities may suffer unnoticed from malnutrition without receiving food assistance. In contrast to refugee camps, humanitarian actors in towns and cities often know little about the food security and nutritional status of urban refugees and IDPs.


Refugees, returnees and IDPs in urban areas have to work to pay for their food and shelter, so they often perceive of protection and livelihoods as intertwined. Most urban refugees survive by working in the informal economy, competing with local people for poorly-paid and hazardous manual labour jobs, or by entrepreneurial vigour. Their ability to work often depends on access to employment opportunities in the formal or informal sector. The right to work is integral to protection and durable solutions. Many humanitarian actors, including UNHCR, attach priority to promoting livelihoods and fostering self-reliance. Advocacy with authorities is an important aspect.


Refugees living in cities have variable access to education, and many refugee children of primary school age do not attend school. In some countries, there is no regulatory framework governing the admission of refugee children to state schools. UNHCR’s priority in cities is to channel refugee children into the national education system, prioritizing their basic right to primary education. Since 2009, UNHCR has enhanced its advocacy for refugee children to access local educational institutions, and boosted the capacity of schools where possible. Although it has increased, its budget to support urban education activities remains limited, in particular for secondary and tertiary education.


Women refugees and displaced people in cities consistently report sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), as well as harassment and intimidation. In many cities, women appear to find employment more easily than men, typically as household servants. The lack of employment opportunities for men and male adolescents may lead to gender-related violence. In some cases, refugee women engage in survival sex to support their families. During 2008–2010, men and women refugees consulted in six cities called for more medical care, counselling and legal support to the victims of SGBV.

Adapting operations

Since 2009, UNHCR has begun to recalibrate its operations towards urban areas. It has begun to develop ways to identify vulnerable refugees and IDPs in cities, to support them, and to advocate with governments to recognize their presence and protect their rights. Communicating with refugees in cities is vital, but urban refugees are often preoccupied with daily survival and very mobile, and women may be homebound. In addition, refugees may find it difficult to contact UNHCR, humanitarian agencies or government offices.

Box 6.1 Changing policy and practice in Delhi

Humanitarian operations in urban areas can be more costly and time-consuming than in refugee camps, and UNHCR and its partners face the new challenge of mobilizing financial resources for refugees in urban areas. The laws and policies of host governments also limit refugees’ access to work permits and their ability to meet some of their own needs. Some authorities may prefer to turn a blind eye to the existence of urban refugees.

Good practices

Recently, UNHCR has made efforts to document successful approaches to meeting the protection and assistance needs of refugees in urban areas. Some evidence of good practice has emerged.

  • Engaging with municipal authorities: Since 2009, UNHCR offices in cities that host large populations of refugees and IDPs have worked with many more municipal authorities, particularly in Latin America where major urban centres have signed up to become ‘Cities of Solidarity.’
  • Advocacy: In Kenya, a strong coalition has emerged, comprising refugee representatives, churches, human rights activists and politicians. It has urged Kenya to work with UNHCR and other UN actors to adopt a rights-based urban refugee policy.
  • Documentation: UNHCR has encouraged national authorities to issue documentation to urban refugees in Ghana, Ecuador and elsewhere.
  • Involving beneficiaries: UNHCR has actively encouraged the participation of refugees and displaced people living in urban areas in matters which concern them. It has supported community involvement in cities such as Damascus, Syria, Sana’a, Yemen; Cartagena, Colombia; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
  • Using new technologies: In Syria and Jordan, UNHCR successfully used innovatory tools, such as electronic vouchers, cash cards and text messages, to register, assist and communicate with refugees dispersed in urban areas.
  • Health care: In Costa Rica, refugees can turn to the national health system for all emergency care, and destitute refugees may register for their costs to be covered by the state.
  • Education support: UNHCR encourages the admission of refugee children to local schools in urban areas; it has rehabilitated schools and added classrooms in Damascus, Syria, and Amman< Jordan, to help schools cater for large numbers of Iraqi refugee children.

Box 6.3 Refugee outreach workers in Damascus


Knowledge remains limited about the impact of refugees and displaced people in cities, and the financial implications. There are clearly severe strains on central and local government budgets, but there may also be a tendency to exaggerate these effects. Tension between established city dwellers and newcomers is a global phenomenon, and many attacks on urban refugees and IDPs also go unreported. In some cities there is a widespread belief that newcomers, including refugees, take away jobs from locals. Yet refugees can also have a positive economic impact.

New paradigm

To respond to the protection and assistance needs of refugees living in urban areas, humanitarian agencies, development agencies and host governments will need to work together more closely and more consistently. UNHCR has stressed that the relationship between displacement and urbanization needs a better evidence base from which to develop operational guidance. The implementation of UNHCR’s new urban refugee policy is in the early stages, and it will require new partnerships and substantial awareness-raising among host governments, donor governments and other humanitarian actors. UNHCR and other major humanitarian organizations are developing and cataloguing good practices. As in many contexts, the availability of funding will be critical.

A refugee woman from Myanmar looks out over rooftops in Delhi.

A refugee woman from Myanmar looks out over rooftops in Delhi.