"Forgotten," "Hidden": Predicaments of the Urban Refugee

Article excerpt

Abstract

Urban refugees are widely viewed as anomalous--people who stand outside a refugee regime which, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is based upon rural encampment. This article considers why states and humanitarian agencies view urban refugees in this way. It examines the history of the refugee as an urban person and the recent change in perspective which has enforced a rural norm. It considers the extreme pressures placed upon displaced people in the city and the consequences for communities which contest their marginal status.

Resume

Les refugies urbains sont generalement consideres comme une anomalie--des gens qui ne tombent pas sous le domaine d'application d'un regime de refugie qui, en Africlue, en Asie et en Amerique latine, est fonde sur des camps ruraux. Cet article traite des raisons pour lesquelles les etats et les organismes humanitaires concoivent les refugies urbains de cette facon. II examine l'histoire du refugie comme citadin, ainsi que le changement de perspective intervenu recemment qui a impose une norme rurale. II tient compte des pressions extremes exercees sur les personnes deplacees clans les villes et les consequences pour les communautes qui contestent leur marginalite.

Urban refugees, observed Rogge and Akol, are "forgotten people." Writing in the late 1980s, they noted that large communities of displaced people in the cities of Africa were unrecognized by the authorities and lived at the margins of local society. (1) Over ten years later, after repeated mass displacements across the continent, the situation was unchanged: Human Rights Watch commented on the many urban refugees "hidden" to governments and international agencies. (2) This apparent conundrum--the presence/absence of urban refugee communities--is in fact a global phenomenon. More and more refugees are city dwellers whose existence is denied by governments and agencies. This article considers the policy of denial and its implications for refugees.

The urban refugee presents a special case of the problem presented to state authorities by migrants in general. In a recent assessment of global migration policy Cohen comments that "nothing is as disturbing to national societies as the movement of people." (3) Although of enormous importance to many receiving societies, especially in the economic context, migration represents a challenge to the modern state. The presence (or anticipated presence) of migrants may disturb ideas about citizenship, national integrity, and local rights and responsibilities. In the case of forced migrants--people engaged in movements that are usually unplanned and unexpected--the authorities may perceive a threat to their control over territorial borders and to their authority in defining "internal" cultural boundaries. Mass movements of refugees are seldom welcome, unless they fulfill a specific economic or ideological function, and states may go to great lengths to exclude incomers and/or to isolate them from the wider society.

Urban refugee communities present a further difficulty. Power is invariably concentrated in cities and it is in the urban context that the state exercises authority in the most assertive and exemplary fashion. At times of economic instability or political crisis the presence of non-national communities can become especially problematic as they are targeted by nativist or nationalist currents and/or by the state itself. One outcome--and a further paradox associated with the urban refugee--is that people who are usually "invisible" can quickly become the focus of high-profile campaigns of exclusion.

Urbanism and the Refugee

Over the past thirty years the urban refugee has been viewed as anomalous and sometimes as illegitimate and unacceptable to state authorities and international agencies. This is especially striking in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where in some countries urban communities now contain a large majority of the displaced population. …