Using evidence to improve support for refugees in cities

We generated evidence on the unmet needs and potential contributions of refugees and displaced people in cities. We used this data to start conversations between displaced people and city officials about how to make cities places where displaced people can lead safe and productive lives.

May 2024
8 minute read
A woman in a headscarf stands outside a building, with two large bags at her feet.

Many displaced people prefer to try and make new lives in a city rather than wait for years in a refugee camp. Somali refugee Hamdi sells tea on the streets of Eastleigh, Nairobi (Photo: Arete/Brian Ongoro/IIED) 

The United Nations estimates that 36 million people are refugees, and a further 62 million people have been displaced within their own countries as a result of conflict, violence or persecution. Climate change displaces tens of millions more each year.

For many years, the default response to large numbers of people fleeing to new locations has been to house them in camps, often far away from any towns and cities. But refugee camps often become a dead-end for displaced people. 

Many live in camps for years – or even decades – without seeing their circumstances improve and with little hope of making a new life. For humanitarian organisations, maintaining the camps costs huge sums while delivering demonstrably poor health and wellbeing outcomes.

Most refugees and displaced people would prefer to live away from camps, and more than 60% of them make their way to towns and cities. As a result, displacement is now an overwhelmingly urban issue – but few cities have the resources or capacities to address the challenges of large numbers of displaced people arriving without resources or support.

Humanitarian agencies and city governments know about the lack of support in cities, but they are not changing their approaches in ways that deliver significant improvements. The situation is likely to worsen with new conflicts and increasing climate disruption, driving further displacement and migration flows.

Using evidence to inform new solutions 

IIED joined nine international partners to deliver 'Protracted Displacement in an Urban World', an ambitious project that built a detailed evidence base about refugee lives to inform new solutions to protracted displacement. 

The project then brought together city authorities, displaced people and international organisations to jointly find ways to better integrate displaced people into local communities and economies.

The project was funded by the UK's Global Challenges Research Fund programme, the Ikea Foundation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Gathering and publishing robust data about refugee lives

IIED led research that compared the experiences of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in cities and camps in four countries with significant displaced populations: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya. These countries host some of the largest refugee populations in the world and rely on international aid to support the costs of hosting displaced people – particularly those in camps.

Our research compared the different experiences of displaced people in camps and cities and provided an evidence-based analysis of the comparative outcomes for displaced people in the two situations.

To generate a robust and detailed evidence base, researchers developed two new frameworks, one to measure refugee wellbeing across five dimensions: bodily, social, economic, political and psychosocial, and a second to analyse their livelihoods and enterprises. Then, researchers designed a detailed survey tool that incorporated the five wellbeing dimensions alongside indicators on enterprise and livelihoods.

The project's database is the largest camp-urban comparative dataset of its kind. It includes a survey with more than 3,500 responses, semi-structured interviews with more than 400 refugees and more than 60 key informant interviews.

International organisations welcomed the methodology, and IIED plans to refine it further to help inform international approaches to protracted displacement.

The survey tool will be helpful for future research with displaced people in other locations, including returnees and IDPs. We will upload the dataset to the UK's Economic and Social Research Council's data archive, making it available for future researchers working on similar themes.

Our research showed that policymakers' widely-held assumptions about refugees and displaced people are neither accurate nor appropriate. We published a research paper countering four key 'myths' about long-term displacement and arguing for a change in humanitarian programming on protracted displacement.

Initiating change at the city level

Researchers leveraged our findings to encourage practical changes at the local level. As part of the project, partners organised participatory forums in Jalalabad, Amman, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, bringing together refugee representatives, city government officials, non-governmental organisations and international agencies to explore the challenges facing urban refugees.

The forums provided crucial opportunities for refugee representatives to directly engage with city and national officials, a process which is usually almost impossible for displaced people.

A group of men seated around three tables set out in a square. One is standing and speaking.

The three-year participatory forum process in Jalalabad city brought together municipal stakeholders, de facto authorities, representatives of civil society and IDPs, and international organisations (Photo: Samuel Hall) 

In Afghanistan, for example, project partners at Samuel Hall organised five participatory forums in Jalalabad, which brought together city stakeholders, including municipality representatives, de facto authorities, civil society and IDP representatives, and international aid organisations. The participants set their disagreements aside to focus on achieving a consensus approach to respond to the needs of displaced communities.

This coming together is a milestone towards improving the lives of displaced people in the city, and the aim is to sustain the forum beyond the project's life cycle. Discussions are ongoing with organisations that could potentially take this forward.

Similarly, during four participatory forums in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, local officials, non-governmental organisations and community representatives discussed the daily challenges the city's displaced communities face. At the end of the series, all the participants agreed on the value of meetings that linked different stakeholders and called for city-wide mapping and coordination of services and resources to support the needs of refugees and other vulnerable city populations.

These forums could evolve into a permanent space for displaced people to raise their concerns and be a model for other refugee-hosting towns, become channels for regular dialogue between displaced people and local authorities and help refugees feel less politically isolated.

The dialogues between different stakeholders can help shift humanitarian agencies' focus away from solutions based on camps and encourage them to work with municipalities to support refugees in cities.

Sharing stories and policy recommendations 

To publicise the many practical obstacles that displaced people – especially women – must overcome when trying to make new lives in towns and cities, we published their stories and shared photo galleries showing their daily lives.

We published policy briefings on what we learned and reports on each of the four countries. We set out practical steps that city authorities, international organisations and national governments can take to foster displaced people's economic self-reliance and social integration while benefiting host communities. 

Homepage of the "Protracted displacement in an urban world" website.

The homepage of the online platform hosting the project materials, which will be a long-term resource for researchers (Image: IIED)

We built an online platform to host all the project materials: this will be a valuable long-term resource for researchers working on displacement, and our research will continue to inform broader discussions among urban stakeholders and policymakers.