Developing a Profiling Methodology for Displaced People in Urban Areas

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By Karen Jacobsen and Rebecca Furst Nichols

January 2012

Increasing numbers of the world’s rural population are moving to urban areas, and refugees, internally displaced people and humanitarian populations are amongst the recently urbanized. UNHCR estimates that almost half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees now reside in urban areas.

In seeking to develop effective programmatic interventions, it is useful for humanitarian agencies to understand whether displaced people in urban areas are worse off than the urban poor and other migrants amongst whom they live. There is controversy around this issue. A widely held belief is that refugees and IDPs are worse off in urban settings, because they have lost their assets and social networks, and lack secure housing, land and property rights, and the cultural knowledge required to survive in a city. Others have argued that refugees are not necessarily more vulnerable than other migrants, and these differences are eroded over time. In particular, some research suggests that international migrants, including refugees, are often better equipped to deal with cities than newly urbanized citizens of the host country. Whether refugees and IDPs are more economically vulnerable and at greater risk is one of the questions we explore in this research.

One problem confronting humanitarian agencies is the difficulty of distinguishing refugees and IDPs from the urban poor amongst whom they live. In the towns and cities of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, refugees live in low-income areas, experiencing the same problems of poverty, poor services, crime and lack of employment, and often even sharing housing with the urban poor. This mixing of humanitarian and local populations creates a range of difficulties for aid agencies. While the government and/or UNHCR can register refugees who present themselves to the relevant office, many refugees, including some of the most vulnerable, are often not reached or even known about by agencies. Some of these ‘hidden’ refugees deliberately choose to avoid contact with aid agencies; others may not know about or be afraid to access agencies that could potentially assist them. This creates difficulties for humanitarian agencies wishing to assist refugees or estimate their numbers.

Finding ways to locate refugees, distinguish them from other migrants and the urban poor, and determine whether and how they are more vulnerable than other groups, thus become important programming issues. A profiling approach can help provide information about these issues. In this set of reports and case studies, we have developed a methodology to obtain profiling information about the population of refugees in an urban setting and how their experience compares to other groups amongst whom they live.

Our final report is presented in the following sections:

Introduction – the need for profiling in urban setting

We describe why profiling is important for refugee (or other humanitarian groups such as IDPs) programming.

Conceptual framework

We outline the theory underpinning our profiling approach. We explain how we distinguish refugees from other migrants and residents, the link between livelihood security and vulnerability, and the constructs and key indicators we used to measure different kinds of livelihood security. We propose a model that explains the causes of livelihood security.

Summary of findings and recommendations

We summarize our research findings and include two types of recommendations: good profiling practices (for use by donors when reviewing proposals), and programming recommendations that could be acted upon by implementing agencies.

Research methodology

We describe our survey methodology, qualitative methods and mapping tools, and how they evolved and were revised over the course of our study.