UNHCR reviews its urban policy: an air of complacency?

By Tim Morris and Sonia Ben Ali

Four years after the launch of its new urban policy UNHCR has published an overview of progress on its implementation. The study was overseen by an Urban Refugee Steering Group created by UNHCR in 2012. It  draws on results of a questionnaire sent to 24 country offices working with urban refugees.

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.

The report produces estimates of refugees and asylum seeker populations in urban areas of the 24 countries which seem in several cases to significantly under-report the numbers involved and does not cite sources suggesting larger case-loads. For example, while UNHCR reports a total of 277,000 in all urban areas of South Africa the Jesuit Refugee Services has recently suggested there may be 450,000 in refugee or refugee-like situations in Johannesburg alone. A 2012 UNHCR report on Cameroon estimated the number of urban refugees and asylum seekers at 14,000, yet only 213 are mentioned in the overview document. The UNHCR figures of 22,000 refugees in the cities of Turkey and 11,000 in Lebanon are implausibly low, at odds with figures the agency has presented elsewhere, especially as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees into urban areas of both countries.

The review somewhat boldly claims that “the way the policy is written is conducive to measuring implementation” and arrives at the conclusion that “UNHCR offices are implementing the policy at the rate of approximately 85%.” This confidence in setting quantifiable indicators does not derive from the policy itself which notes that “protection space … cannot be measured with any degree of scientific precision, but can be assessed in a qualitative manner …”

Insufficient attention to human rights?

The report comes at a time when Human Rights Watch has cast serious doubts on UNHCR’s capacity, or even inclination, to forcibly intervene to protect the human rights of refugees in one of the major cities where they are found in massive numbers. According to an HRW report police in Nairobi tortured, raped, and otherwise abused and arbitrarily detained at least 1,000 refugees between mid-November 2012 and late January 2013, yet UNHCR has not spoken publicly about the abuses. There are substantial contradictions between the HRW and UNHCR reports. UNHCR coyly notes it is “challenging” for Nairobi-based refugees to renew ID cards – HRW reports that it is impossible. UNHCR describes “regular contact” with human rights organisations on urgent cases, but this is not noted by HRW. The alleged silence of UNHCR comes atop observations that another UN agency – UN Habitat (which is head-quartered in Nairobi) – has only taken a belated interest in urban refugees living on its doorstep.

The discrepancy between the two documents raises the question of just how widespread is the gap between rhetoric and practice in protecting urban refugees in other countries. It is still the case that only a handful of cities attract serious attention from academic and human rights researchers – notably Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cairo. There is a great need to know much more about human rights violations impacting refugees in other cities and the successes or otherwise of UNHCR advocacy.

For a start, UNHCR could do much more to quantify and to publicise the number of urban refugees in detention in the surveyed countries and the periods of their detention, especially in the quarter of countries where detention of urban refugees is recognised by the agency as a problem.

There is a further notable omission in this report. Globally, UNHCR is committed to a policy of Age Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM), yet this overview makes no mention of the recently-highlighted protection gaps facing sexual minority refugees in a number of urban locations.

It is clear that in many cities UNHCR often feels frustrated by the failure of sister UN agencies and UN Country Teams to effectively support advocacy for refugee rights. This may be particularly apparent in the case of host states which are populous, non-Refugee Convention signatories and/or active UN Member States in such activities as peacekeeping.

Paucity of detail

The reports contains a lot of mention of systems – including Heightened Risk Identification Tools (HRIT), Health Information System (HIS), Education Management Information System (EMIS), Refugee Assistance and Information System (RAIS) and Multi-Functional Teams (MFT) without providing details of the procedures behind these acronyms.

Why four years into implementation do a quarter of offices not advocate on livelihood issues with national host governments on behalf of urban refugees and a half not advocate with municipal authorities? It is hard to understand the confidence with which UNHCR assets that “engagement with government authorities has increased understanding of refugee’s rights and provision of services” when many authorities/service providers have not been engaged.

Each section has a good practice set of bullets. These are tantalising, failing to provide details of budgetary resources allocated or number of beneficiaries. This is particularly the case with the sections on promotion of livelihoods and material assistance. Vouchers, ATMs and web-based information are mentioned as useful tools but no details are given of how many refugees use them – or indeed of how many refugees lack mobile phones or access to banks or the Internet. Most offices apparently provide livelihoods training and micro-credit but there are no details of what percentage of registered refugees and asylum seekers may have benefited nor of the levels or frequency of credit offered.

This raises the question whether UNHCR should be more specific in each country about what it can and cannot deliver in terms of material assistance.

The report is to be commended for the frankness with it identifies very severe problems. These include:

  • The number of asylum seekers approaching UNHCR offices far exceeds the capacity of offices to register them: there are, for example, up to 50,000 individuals awaiting registration in Kuala Lumpur.
  • In thirteen countries urban refugees/asylum seekers do not receive individual documentation – either from the refugee agency or host governments.
  • Long waits for first RSD interviews, leading to anger, violence and security restrictions
  • Two thirds of offices report that legal barriers prevent refugees seeking sustainable livelihoods
  • In only six of the 24 UNHCR offices surveyed do refugees generally enjoy freedom of movement within the country
  • In the 14 countries where host governments have undertaken to register urban refugees UNHCR staff report this is very effective only in two.
  • UNHCR suffers from severe staffing shortages and, frequently, difficulties in communicating with urban refugees in cities where they speak a great diversity of languages.
  • The extent to which security procedures around UNHCR offices complicate refugee access and building of rapport with refugee communities.

Missing elements

The overview gives a range of reason for difficulties in community outreach. However, it does not mention the suspicion that many urban refugees harbour towards UNHCR (recently noted in Cairo), nor address the phenomenon – reported from Nairobi – that male urban refugees, many feeling ignored and emasculated by programmes which they believe prioritise women, may accuse UNHCR female staff of using their position of power to challenge their masculinity and demean them.

Is corruption the elephant in the room? Almost all the available literature on urban refugees speaks of urban refugees’ heightened vulnerability to extortion by police, municipal authorities and service providers. However, the sole mention of this phenomenon in this report is a note that it happens “in some countries.”

A number of recent reports indicate very low levels of service provision. In Kuala Lumpur the International Rescue Committee report that over 90 percent of over a thousand Burmese refugees interviewed said that they did not receive any form of humanitarian aid or services in 2012. Forty per cent of refugees have had relatives arrested for lack of sufficient documentation. Only 37% of children regularly attend school. Similarly, the Institute for the Study of International Migration noted that in Cairo, only 30 of 70,000 Palestinians recognised by UNHCR as Persons of Concern receive any assistance from them.

The document reiterates that the two overarching goals of the urban policy are to ensure that cities are recognised as legitimate places for refugees to reside and exercise the rights to which they are entitled and to maximise protection space available to them and humanitarian organisations that support them. It focuses heavily on these two topics, with far less detail on the scale of material assistance the agency provides to urban refugees. It is not clear from the report whether refugees and asylum seekers are aware that UNHCR sees its role not so much to provide services as to advocate for others to provide them.

The 2009 urban policy is clear that “UNHCR’s work with refugees in urban areas is underpinned by the same set of principles and approaches that apply to all other aspects of the organization’s work.” This is a laudable declaration but greater transparency is needed in measuring actual levels of material assistance and per capita UNHCR expenditure on encamped and urban refugees. If, as the document asserts, urban areas are “expansive environments in which to promote refugee protection”, more details are needed on costs of urban operations. The aspirational character of much of the programming described in this report needs to be matched by much greater empirical evidence. This will require a research agenda which goes far beyond the self-reporting contained in this document.


Dr Tim Morris (tim@timmorris.info) is a consultant, former editor of Forced Migration Review, who wrote the background paper for the December 2009 High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern to UNHCR in Urban Settings and drafted the chapter on urban refugees for the 2013 edition of the State of the World’s Refugees. Sonia Ben Ali (sonia.benali@urban-refugees.org) is the founder of the Urban Refugees project.

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