Media Backgrounder: Africa on the front line as more refugees flock to cities

As UNHCR calls for states, municipal authorities and mayors, humanitarian agencies and civil society to meet the challenges of growing refugee populations in towns and cities worldwide, Africa finds itself struggling with migrants and refugees.

With as many as 50 per cent of the 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR's mandate now living in cities and towns, UNHCR's new policy challenges states, municipal authorities, communities, humanitarian agencies and civil society to recognize this new reality - and work together to respond. "The plight of refugees, IDPs [internally displaced people] and other persons of concern can no longer be treated as simply a UNHCR issue or a humanitarian issue," says UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. As elsewhere, Africa is seeing a massive growth of urban populations, including people seeking protection as refugees. From Abidjan, to Juba, Johannesburg, Khartoum and Nairobi, African cities are hosting ever larger numbers of them.

Framing what will be a global debate on this issue, Guterres adds, "We should remember that refugees' human rights travel with them. They are entitled to the same protection and services in cities and towns that they have received in camps."

Protecting refugees in towns and cities remains the primary responsibility of national governments and local authorities, states the policy, and calls for a spirit of increased solidarity and shared responsibility.

Key role of mayors and municipal authorities

The challenges are very different from region to region. "While the issue is global, conditions vary greatly from region to region and so much depends on a local response. That's why, as well as working at government level, we are highlighting the role of mayors and municipal authorities as being pivotal. We look to them in particular to help build understanding and cooperation between refugees and the local population on the ground. They can make a big difference," says Guterres.

While many refugees have indeed established themselves and a livelihood successfully in cities and towns, the experience on the ground is typically one of a struggle to survive, whether it is to secure housing, basic identity documents, schooling for their children, health care or jobs. Not legally entitled, or able to get work, their exposure to risk becomes multiplied, particularly women, children and the elderly. Xenophobia and violence, forced eviction, expulsion, harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, refoulement [forced return], discrimination, rape, AIDS infection, human trafficking, abuse and exploitation by rogue officials or organized crime are just some of the risks that so-called "urban refugees" can face daily.

Registration - key step to securing basic rights

Protection is thus an even more critical need for refugees in urban settings, starting, crucially, with registration and the issuance of identity documents recognized by the authorities. In towns and cities, refugees inevitably come into contact with police and security personnel, with local government officials, workplace and marketplace inspectors. In these situations, the fact of having been formally registered in an official record and possessing a recognized and respected identity document is vital in securing protection against arrest, as well as for access to health care, schooling and freedom of movement. Governments bear the obligation to register refugees and provide them the necessary documentation. However, in many situations, UNHCR is obliged to carry out these functions.

Not only in regard to registration and documentation, but also, in other equally fundamental respects, the response to the growing phenomenon of so-called urban refugees is different in each country. In some, there is a clear swing back towards encampment of refugees as the main tool for managing both refugee presence and their protection. In others, more liberal approaches can be seen. In South Africa, one example of the latter, notwithstanding compelling challenges, refugees not only reside in cities and towns but also have essential freedom of movement and legally the right to work.

The way in which Zimbabweans have been treated in South Africa is both illustrative and instructive of the approach. Estimated to be anything from 800,000 to as high as 3 million, their numbers in South Africa have been swelled in the last two years by the political, social and economic turmoil which have afflicted their country. Many of them have grounds to be recognized as refugees. Typically, the pressure to encamp such a large number of people entering a country at least in part for refugee-related reasons would have been tremendous. Yet, in South Africa no decision was made for encampment either of the Zimbabweans or of other nationalities in the country's cities that have fled strife and conflict from their countries of origin. Under the country's Refugee Act, Zimbabweans in principle enjoy freedom of movement and the right to work. Those with skills have a real opportunity to make a living. Others face a struggle and competition for opportunities with both other foreigners and locals.

Mitigating the risk of xenophobia

These factors can create an explosive and potentially violent mix amidst escalating urban poverty and economic disparities. Foreigners, refugees included, can be perceived in the local community as either competitors for limited resources or as being better off - especially if they have successfully demonstrated entrepreneurial skills. They risk becoming the subject of xenophobic attacks such as those witnessed in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria in 2008.

Following these outbreaks, UNHCR, has been forging partnerships with organizations on the ground to deliver in a more integrated manner the emergency food, shelter, health care, education services, skills training, livelihoods support, micro-credit, and other forms of assistance it provides for the benefit of refugees. The needs are huge - whether for nationals or refugees - so it remains the priority to identify and target the most vulnerable. Further measures designed to counteract xenophobia are in place at different levels to prevent any wildfire spread of xenophobic violence. Government leaders have spoken out in condemnation of xenophobia, reminding the people of South Africa's unique history. UNHCR, local authorities and civil society groups have helped put in place mechanisms for crisis prevention, including conciliation teams that will travel to hot spots to calm crisis situations, stop violence and negotiate with all parties in the interests of establishing longer term coexistence. UNHCR will also cooperate with the Nelson Mandela Foundation over a two-year period in promoting social cohesion by bringing together mixed nationality communities to discuss challenges and sustainable solutions for living peacefully together. It will work with the police authorities for the latter to respond promptly and firmly to all xenophobic incidents, including prosecution of perpetrators, and involving respected, responsible community leaders.

Notes to editors:

We have more materials to help you cover this story:

  • B-roll broadcast quality film shot over the last two months in Malaysia. This is available from FTP pointer here
  • Selected, fully captioned photography shot over the last two months in Malaysia available here: pointer here
  • Edited stories of individuals and families coping day-to-day as refugees in towns and cities in Malaysia.
  • UNHCR field staff who can provide on-the-ground expert views, detailed information