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Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees' Risks of Gender-Based Violence

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Executive Summary

An increasing majority (nearly 60 percent) of refugees live in cities, a figure that will continue to rise as camps become an option of last resort. This new reality necessitates a monumental shift in humanitarian response, requiring policy makers, donors, and practitioners to develop new programming that addresses the protection concerns of refugees in urban contexts.

Urban refugees face gender-based violence (GBV) risks as a result of multiple and complex unmet social, medical, and economic needs, as well as intersecting oppressions based on race, ethnicity, nationality, language, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Misperceptions further contribute to discrimination toward refugees, which in turn heightens their vulnerability.

Throughout 2015, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) conducted research in urban settings, the first phase of a multi-year project to improve the humanitarian community’s understanding of and response to GBV risks in urban contexts. Quito, Ecuador; Beirut, Lebanon; Kampala, Uganda; and Delhi, India, were chosen because they are host to diverse refugee populations, have different policy environments for refugees, and are at different stages of humanitarian response.

The project looked separately at the GBV risks of different urban refugee subpopulations: women; adolescent girls; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; persons with disabilities; and male survivors of sexual violence. Refugees engaged in sex work were added as a subpopulation, due to their invisibility and the heightened GBV risks they face.


A deeper understanding of the nuances and complexities of urban risks is essential to addressing violence and bridging the protection gaps affecting marginalized groups who have been traditionally overlooked in humanitarian response. UNHCR’s 2009 Urban Policy unequivocally affirmed its protection mandate but limited itself to setting forth “the broad contours and underlying principles” of engagement with urban refugees. There remains a need for more specific guidance, as well as capacity building for field staff.

Additionally, more creative and agile use of donor funding is necessary, bolstered by more formal opportunities to share information about what works, or is showing promise, in different cities worldwide.