Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern in Urban Settings

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern in Urban Settings

Article excerpt

Urbanisation is an irreversible trend. More and more of the people we care for - refugees, returnees, the internally displaced and the stateless - will live in cities and towns and we need to adjust our policies accordingly.

The actual number of refugees, IDPs, returnees and stateless persons in urban areas is extremely difficult to ascertain. Damascus and Amman between them have received more than a million Iraqis, providing the most dramatic but far from the only current examples of large-scale displaced populations in urban areas. Khartoum is believed to host 1.7 million internally displaced people and refugees. Abidjan and Bogotá have both absorbed hundreds of thousands of victims of armed conflict, swelling slums which were already poorly serviced. Former refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan and those displaced by violence in rural areas of Afghanistan have joined the even larger number of people migrating to Kabul for economic and other reasons, resulting in a several-fold increase in Kabul's population since 2001.

Urban displacement is clearly a global phenomenon but one with localised effects. It is accordingly a matter of growing concern for city authorities and central governments as well as humanitarian and development organisations. Municipal administrations have become front-line actors. They require the strong support of national and international organisations and a wider engagement of the development community.

Sharpening our focus

UNHCR's experience with refugees, the internally displaced, returnees and the stateless in cities is not new. What is new is the appreciation that increasingly cities will be the main site of humanitarian response to the needs of this population. To discharge our mandate effectively, we have to improve our performance in urban settings and recalibrate our approach, with an enhanced focus on partnerships and paying particular attention to the role of local authorities.

The plight of refugees and others of concern in urban areas cannot be treated in isolation but needs to be responded to in the broader context of the urban poor. The humanitarian community needs to reassess its paradigm of assistance in urban areas. Humanitarian actors in urban areas need to determine how community-based and bottom-up initiatives can be better supported.

We do not wish to encroach upon the work of development actors but we do want to spur on their efforts and coordinate our own activities with theirs. We will need to work hard with governments, local authorities and through UN Country Teams to raise awareness that poverty alleviation, disasterrisk reduction, slum-clearance and similar initiatives must respond to the needs of all marginalised urban populations, including those of concern to UNHCR.

If we want our efforts to have the desired impact, we cannot see these populations in isolation from local communities. We will only succeed if we adopt a comprehensive approach taking into account the rights of both the displaced and their hosts.

Partnerships and priorities

Deliberations at UNHCR's December 2009 Protection Dialogue in Geneva1 underlined the need for stronger partnerships. Central governments will, of course, remain key partners, as state signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the recently concluded AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and other relevant international instruments, and as authors of the national legal, strategic and policy frameworks in which we all work. Local authorities are absolutely essential too, and need to be much more integrated into the articulation of strategies and policies. Our traditional partners - NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement - still have important roles to play, as does civil society, particularly local community leaders, faithbased organisations and other groups promoting social cohesion.

The central element in all our discussions at the Dialogue was how to create, deepen and expand the protection space in cities for those we care for. …

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