Academic journal article Refuge

Finding Space for Protection: An Inside Account of the Evolution of UNHCR's Urban Refugee Policy

Academic journal article Refuge

Finding Space for Protection: An Inside Account of the Evolution of UNHCR's Urban Refugee Policy

Article excerpt


During the past two decades, the issue of urban refugees has occupied an increasingly important place on the global refugee policy agenda. This article traces the evolution of UNHCR's approach to the issue, focusing particularly on the complex and contested nature of the organization's policymaking process.

In that respect, the article examines the key drivers of --and constraints to--policy formulation during the period under review, examining the ways in which those drivers and constraints changed and interacted over time. The article also analyzes the role that different stakeholders, both internal and external to UNHCR, have played in policy formulation. As a result of these dynamics, the article concludes, the formulation of UNHCR policy on urban refugees has been slow and even tortuous.

The article is written from the perspective of a former UNHCR staff member who was extensively engaged in the organization's policymaking and who was responsible for researching and drafting its 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas. The following account draws extensively from the author's access to discussions, documents, and other information that have not been placed in the public domain. While striving for analytical and academic rigour, the article inevitably reflects the position, experiences, and personal views of the author.

Origins of the 1997 Policy

One of the first references to refugees in urban areas of developing countries appears in a 1967 statement by the un high commissioner for refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. "We are confronted more and more frequently," he said, "with a new problem and with a new class of refugees: on the one hand, the students, who are to some extent the elite of the African refugees, and, on the other, refugees who are not employed in agriculture and who are at present concentrated in urban areas and in the big African capitals." (1) Despite this early identification of the urban refugee issue, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that UNHCR, its governmental and non-governmental partners, and the academic community began to give this topic more concerted attention. The timing of that development can be attributed to four principal factors.

First, the number of urban refugees in developing countries was steadily growing, as was international awareness of their presence. Thus between 1984 and 1993, UNHCR undertook internal reviews of its assistance programs for urban refugees in a number of different locations, including Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and several other African states.

Urban refugees also began to attract the attention of researchers and commentators, particularly in Africa. In 1976, Robert Chambers estimated the continent's urban refugee population to be in the region of 15,000, but just three years later, Brian Neldner revised that figure to over 200,000. (2)

Certain urban refugee populations in Africa came under particular academic scrutiny. In 1979, for example, Louise Pirouet prepared a conference paper on urban refugees in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In 1985, Wendy Wallace drew attention to the growing number of refugees living in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, an issue that was subsequently explored in greater detail by Gaim Kibreab. At the end of the 1980s, research undertaken by Derek Cooper began to explore the situation of refugees in Cairo, Egypt, while Marc Sommers and Roos Willems both turned their attention to exiles living in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam. (3)

Second, and as already indicated by Sadruddin Aga Khan in his 1967 statement, urban refugees were regarded and conceived as a problem, even by the most sympathetic commentators. Louise Pirouet, for example, who was an ardent advocate for refugee rights, made these observations in her 1979 paper on refugees in Nairobi, which was tellingly subtitled "Small Numbers, Large Problems":

   Urban refugees are usually articulate, aware of at least some of
   their rights, and expect something more than mere subsistence . … 
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