Media Backgrounder: Protecting refugees in towns and cities across Asia

UNHCR policy calls for states, municipal authorities and mayors, humanitarian agencies and civil society to join forces in meeting the challenge raised by a growing refugee population in towns and cities worldwide. The challenge is especially significant in Asia.

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.

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 challenge looks very different from region to region. Middle Eastern countries have responded with generosity towards Iraqi refugees. Many Latin American cities extend support to refugees across borders and within cities. Not all regions are as hospitable however.

"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.

In line with the global trend of economic migration, Asia has seen massive growth of urban populations during the last decades. Although much of this is accounted for by economic migration, it includes a significant and growing number of refugees living in urban settings. Any view of Asian towns mostly sheltering refugees in improvised settlements and tent encampments is now out-dated.

While it is difficult to collect precise figures, it is clear that the numbers of refugees moving to towns and cities are enormous. Cities in Iran and Pakistan have played host to refugees from Afghanistan for decades. According to recent estimates, the Afghan capital of Kabul has grown threefold since 2001, many of the new arrivals being former refugees who have returned from Iran or Pakistan, or internally displaced people escaping violence in rural areas of the country.

Towns and cities - promise of opportunity

Economic growth and the promise of greater opportunity in towns and cities have attracted large numbers of people from across this huge and diverse continent to migrate - and they arrive to eke out precarious existences. Others arrive in cities and towns having been forced to abandon their homes through the threat of armed conflict, political violence, lawlessness or natural disaster. In Asia, urban settings for refugees range from sprawling mega cities such as Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to refugee communities on the edge of conurbations that over time have become permanent settlements.

Urban setting - challenges for refugees and for their host communities

UNHCR experience on the ground paints a graphic picture of refugees struggling to survive. Often with no assets, and without basic skills and knowledge required to survive daily city life, they desperately need help. Secure housing and supportive social networks enjoyed at home will be missing. They won't have basic identity documents which could help get them food rations, schooling and health care. Worse, they may not be legally entitled to work. As a result, they are soon exposed to risk - with women, children and the ageing, particularly vulnerable. Xenophobia and violence, forced eviction, expulsion, harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, refoulement (forced return), discrimination, rape, and human trafficking all figure in the dangers refugees can face. They also become targets for prostitution and organized crime.

Destination towns and cities are adversely impacted. Across Asia refugees will live alongside nationals and economic migrants who have moved to cities in pursuit of higher living standards. Although many Asian cities cope with tensions between national city-dwellers and recent arrivals from the countryside, at the same time, local residents have often shown great empathy and tolerance for people arriving from neighbouring countries. Often they share a common history, and even family ties that cross borders.

As Asian cities grow into mega-cities with populations in the tens of millions, these different groups all contend with difficult circumstances every day in communities that will lack even the most basic welfare support. More pressure on infrastructure and environment, on housing and social services in communities already struggling can create tensions between local and refugee populations - and in worst cases, can fuel xenophobia.

Within this volatile and shifting context, UNHCR is faced with the most basic of challenges - how to identify and reach out to refugees.

Reaching out to refugees in Asian towns and cities - a special challenge

The impediments to making contact are many. In countries where UNHCR is not able to operate freely, authorities ensure that refugees keep a low profile. In these situations, they prefer not to make themselves known, fearing detention and expulsion. Some might not even be aware of a UNHCR presence, while illness or disability may keep others confined to their homes. Sometimes security concerns or basic logistics get in the way - with refugees facing a long and expensive trip to a UNHCR location. The "invisibility" of this population hampers UNHCR in its efforts to protect them - and to build an accurate picture of the refugee population.

Registration - key step to securing basic rights

Of all tools and processes designed to protect refugees, the registration process is key and an important starting point enabling them to secure some status via UNHCR-issued identity papers. Registration also enables UNHCR to do the work it is mandated to do and the government to understand who is present on its territory. The refugee determination process provides those seeking asylum with basic documentation, access to protection and to services such as health care, social support and possibly to the labour market. More importantly, registration will lead to initial legal status in a country.

Threat of arrest and detention

One of the major threats to refugees in Asian towns and cities is that of being arrested and detained arbitrarily. Detention can often be indefinite as refugees have nowhere they can return to, and no other possibility of leaving the country. When detained, their problems increase - corruption, extortion, no access to services, fear of torture or inhumane treatment, no access to external or legal representatives, and no solution in prospect. Even particularly vulnerable populations like children and women are no exception to this.

UNHCR has worked hard to address this issue with individual governments, particularly through providing basic documentation to refugees, visiting them in prisons and negotiating with governments for their release and advocating less stringent detention policies - advocacy that sometimes falls on deaf ears since a harsh detention policy is often used as a deterrent to further immigration. Working closely with governments, UNHCR has been successful in improving practices in Pakistan and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China.

Consistent legal framework lacking in Asia

A further challenge for UNHCR in Asia is the lack of a consistent legal framework - most Asian countries are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This makes it unclear what rights refugees can claim and what obligations countries have towards them, and more difficult for UNHCR to operate effectively. The organization is thus required to negotiate space within which it can operate to meet the needs of, and assist, refugees - a space that is not always forthcoming with governments often unwilling to cooperate or engage actively on behalf of refugees.

As the number of refugees in Asian cities grows, durable solutions in many countries remain a distant prospect - with UNHCR continuing to negotiate for more tolerant and accommodating policies that can lead to a greater degree of acceptance.