By Dale Buscher, Senior Programme Director, Women’s Refugee Commission
As the growth in urban refugee numbers far out-strips a parallel growth in humanitarian financial assistance and as the average length of displacement is now 17 years, feeding and providing direct services to these populations is no longer a viable option. Their ability to provide for themselves not only enhances their protection by reducing, for example their need to trade sex for food, but, allows urban refugees to address their own needs without substantive further assistance from the humanitarian community.
Not only could economic opportunities restore some of the refugees’ dignity, allowing them to make decisions about their expenditures and choices, promoting these opportunities would also allow humanitarian assistance to be used more effectively and sustainably—supporting local economic development or improving government health and education facilities rather than utilizing donor dollars to support food aid and refugee subsistence allowance.
Four years ago next month, UNHCR issued its Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, perhaps the UN’s most important 21st Century statement of protection strategy. Depending on who you listen to, we are either at the nascent stages of a new era of rights-based refugee assistance, or due for a skeptical realization that not much as changed.
On paper and in rhetoric, the 2009 urban policy represents a break from fundamental flaws of 20th Century refugee practice. A previous 1997 version of this policy was understood as condemning urban refugees as “irregular movers,” troublemakers who were making it more difficult for UNHCR and its partners. Camps were normal and good, and refugees should be discouraged from trying to leave them.
In UNHCR’s words, the new policy “marks the beginning of a new approach.” Refugees are now to be reconceived as people with autonomy. The focus is to be on their rights, their legal status, their ability to support themselves and to raise their families in dignity.
But as always, the situation on the ground is more complicated. Four years on, the world is still littered with refugee camps imposed on refugees whether they like it or not. In East Africa, on the Thai border with Burma, in dozens of other places refugees are directly or indirectly forced to live in remote camps.
While the report is clearly a welcome addition to what remains a relatively limited literature – and elements of it are extremely frank about the magnitude of the tasks required to realize the bold aspirations of the urban policy – it has major shortcomings.
Limitations of self-reporting
Perhaps the greatest is that it is solely based in information from UNHCR. The report recognises that “the inherent biases of staff self-reporting on their work should be kept in mind”, yet does not explain what these are likely to be, nor explain why testimony from urban refugees and asylum seekers themselves, from the refugee self-help groups found in so many cities, from organisations advocating for them or from UNHCR’s own implementing partners were not included. It reports that all 24 offices use participatory assessments with refugees yet there are no details, nor explanation of the lack of refugee voice in the overview. Continue reading “UNHCR reviews its urban policy: an air of complacency?” »
This is an independent forum for practitioners, policy makers, researchers and other interested in urban displacement matters to debate key issues, share information and disseminate new ideas.
The idea underpinning this Forum is to establish a long-lasting platform of discussion where consensual ideas will be challenged, misconceptions dislodged and the overall debate on urban displacement moved forward.
Very diverse topics will be discussed on this Forum, from the humanitarian response to current urban refugee crisis (in Syria, Kenya or elsewhere) to the relevance of new approaches to urban refugee and IDP livelihood strategies.
Contributors will write articles that will then be discussed by Forum users. If you are not a Contributor but wish to propose an article for the Forum, please submit it to debate[a]urban-refugees.org We commit to get back to you within one week. You can also leave comments and give your opinion on the topic of your choice.