Introduction to urban crises and forced displacement

IIED’s programme of work brings together diverse perspectives on humanitarian emergencies and forced displacement, to inform new directions in urban crisis response.

Urban crises and forced displacement
A programme of work bringing together diverse perspectives on humanitarian emergencies and forced displacement, to inform new directions in urban crisis response
A number of informal tents forming a village

Settlement for internally displaced people in Haiti. The majority of forcibly displaced people move to towns and cities, but current humanitarian approaches don't work well in complex urban environments (Photo: GAiN USA via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Urban areas around the world are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and extreme weather events. At the same time, conflicts and other forms of violence are generating millions of displaced people, the majority of whom move to towns and cities.

IIED is working to ensure the interventions of humanitarian agencies are informed by an understanding of the challenges and opportunities of working in cities, and that city actors are able to respond to the needs of all residents, including displaced people.

This research and policy engagement on humanitarian interventions in towns and cities builds on the long-standing work of the Human Settlements research group on urban poverty, governance, risk and resilience. It takes our understanding of urban systems to new audiences involved in humanitarian policymaking and in responding to disasters and displacement crises.

This is important as many of the tools and approaches familiar to humanitarians were developed in remote border regions and rural areas, and may not work well in complex urban environments. This work broadens the group’s portfolio with its new focus on urban areas affected by conflict.   

One important strand of our work focuses on the experiences of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in towns and cities. This is generating understanding of their interactions with formal and informal urban systems and host communities, and of how they seek livelihoods, shelter and social support in towns and cities.

Our research in this area is building an evidence base on how municipal actors and institutions can support a more productive and welcoming environment for those displaced by conflict or disasters.

What IIED has done

The institute’s first project to explore explicitly the relationship between humanitarian crises and urbanisation was the DFID-supported Urban Crises Learning Fund, that ran from 2014-17. Through a programme of small-scale research and documentation, and the development of tools and approaches, this built the knowledge and capacity of humanitarian actors working in urban areas, and of urban actors responding to humanitarian crises.

A series of working papers and briefing notes were produced on a wide range of topics, and the broad findings of the project were summarised in a long read.

Work on one working paper – on community planning in Port-au-Prince following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 – involved the creation of an online archive of planning materials, maps, photos and videos. This was launched in January 2020.

Building on this work, and bringing in a newer focus on displaced people to the group’s long-standing expertise on urban poverty, British Academy funding was secured for a research project in Kampala and Nairobi examining refugees’ access to healthcare, housing and basic services. This ran from 2017-19 and established a new partnership with YARID, a refugee-led organisation in Kampala.

The theme of urban displacement was also explored in the Mogadishu case study of a research project on housing in East Africa. This identified and analysed the barriers to decent housing and basic services for the city’s many IDPs.

What is IIED doing now?

In 2020, new research began into ‘Protracted displacement in an urban world’, focusing on Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya. IIED is leading the study, which seeks to refocus attention of humanitarian donors and host governments on refugees and IDPs in urban areas. We have discussed this work in a series of blogs and a podcast.

The study also aims to bring the voices of refugees and IDPs into municipal planning processes through a series of participatory forums in each city. This brings a new angle to IIED’s long-standing engagement with community groups organised around slum-upgrading, with these groups increasingly recognising the presence of refugees and other displaced people in their midst.

We are also developing new partnerships and engaging in international policy discussions on urban displacement. Exploring the ‘humanitarian environment interface’, this work seeks to encourage UN agencies, other humanitarian actors and donors to pay greater attention to the impacts of displacement and disasters on urban populations and environments.

More broadly on the theme of IDPs, we have been working with partners to engage with the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, drawing attention to the specific characteristics of urban displacement. This included a joint submission to the panel calling for a complete rethinking of how government and other actors respond to internal displacement in urban areas and an article in Refugee Survey Quarterly that develops these ideas further.

IIED's work on urban displacement was a focus of the institute's 2020 annual review