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Urbanisation, Displacement & Humanitarian Action

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Paper presented at the 2. World Conference of Humanitarian Studies, June 2-5 2011, Boston

  1. Introduction & Background

Urbanisation is one the mega trends of our time: more than 3 billion people, the majority of the world’s population, will live in cities within this decade. The pace of urbanisation is much faster in the developing world, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. Already now, more than 1 billion people live in urban slums.

Forced migration is one important driver of urbanisation, both in cases of large-scale displacement to urban areas but also in the case formerly rural dwellers chose to settle in town when they return. As forced migrants increasingly chose to go to towns and cities, we are likely to see more displacement to so-called urban areas in the future.

Why should this be an important concern to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC)? The global trends indicated above imply that DRC has to A) investigate the trend of increasing displacement to urban areas as well as its implications for humanitarian action and B) assess the need to adapt existing approaches and/or develop new ones in order to be prepared to meet the humanitarian challenges of the future. More displacement to urban areas simply means that the context for humanitarian action will partly shift towards urbanised areas. Like most other humanitarian INGOs, DRC is in the process of accumulating both experiences and tools in order to be ready to take on this challenge.

With a strong background in displacement situations in European contexts, DRC has been working in urban areas for many years. More recently, humanitarian programmes are been implemented in Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African cities. From these experiences, DRC knows that working in cities and urban areas, as opposed to remote rural settings, presents us with considerable challenges such as scale, humanitarian access, possibilities for identification and targeting, local bureaucracies, the complexity of different actors on the ground as well as the need to understand livelihood strategies and protection challenges in particular urban environments. However, urbanities also bring along certain opportunities: cities are often better resourced, logistics are sometimes easier, qualified staff more readily available and urban economies frequently offer more diverse livelihood opportunities to people of concern.

Policy research during recent years has shown that numerous large scale displacement situations in urban areas such as Khartoum, Nairobi or Damascus continue to be characterised by a discouraging lack of durable solutions, convention responsibilities that are systematically violated, completely inadequate provision of basic services to forcibly displaced persons, reluctant authorities as well as hesitant donors. In other words, the provision of protection space in urban areas poses a serious challenge to the international community.

Being a rights-based organisation with a strong protection mandate, DRC insists that forced migrants (IDPs and refugees) have the right to protection, no matter where they are. That this cannot be taken for granted is amply demonstrated by UNHCR having recently issued a new policy for the protection of refugees in urban areas as well as the fact that a disproportionate amount of humanitarian assistance continues to be allocated for interventions in rural or camp-like settings.

The 2009 UNHCR policy is the result of a series of processes and preparatory studies, and replaced the previous 1997 policy, which was widely criticised for being both unclear in terms of the responsibility to protect in urban areas and inadequate in terms of providing guidance for meeting the above-mentioned challenges. The focus on displacement in urban areas within UNHCR has triggered an intense debate on the issue among humanitarian actors worldwide. Urbanisation & displacement is currently a ‘hot button’ in humanitarianism and a range of policy research initiatives are conducted by actors such as IASC, UNHCR, Tufts/Feinstein, ODI and others.

Practitioners agree that the growing presence of IDPs and refugees in urban areas presents us with a unique challenge and that the bulk of the humanitarian toolbox has emerged from humanitarian experiences in rural areas predominantly. However, what is it more precisely that makes the design and implementation of humanitarian programmes in urban environments so different?

It is against this background that the Danish Refugee Council has chosen the topic of ‘displacement & urbanisation’ as a Strategic Focal Area (SFA) for 2010 and 11. DRC believes that those organisations who invest in collating and developing tools and approaches to humanitarian action in urban areas are likely to be better prepared to meet future challenges.