Urban Settings

Compiled by:
Leonellha Barreto Dillon (cewas), Sarah Achermann (seecon gmbh)

Executive Summary

At the end of 2015, about six out of ten refugees lived in urban areas (UNHCR 2016). Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) move to cities in hope of better access to facilities and services, more diversified employment possibilities in the formal and informal sectors as well as more accessible markets than in isolated camps or rural settings (UNHCR 2009c). Refugees and IDPs settle in urban areas, live on land or in housing that they rent, own or occupy informally, or benefit from hosting arrangements in families (UNHCR 2015a). This factsheet describes the situation of refugees and IDPs in these urban settings.


In 2014, a total of 54% of the world population lived in urban areas, a ratio that is expected to increase to 66% by 2060. Due to this global urbanisation trend, it does not come as a surprise that most refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) seek a place to live in cities. The Internally Displaced Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that 80% of the IDPs live outside of camps, while for refugees, figures reach 60% (adapted from THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014). The reasons for settling in urban areas are motivated by various context-specific circumstances, such as hopes for better livelihood opportunities, improved access to services, the opportunity to remain anonymous, security concerns as well as the possibility to reside with other family members.

The world’s urban refugee population, besides increasing in size, is also changing in composition. In the past, most of the IDPs and refugees in developing and middle-income countries were young men, with the strength and the determination to survive in the city. Today, a significant proportion of urban refugees and IDPs are women, children and elderly persons who are often vulnerable to diverse risks (adapted from UNHCR 2009a). Furthermore, many refugees are today fleeing from middle-income countries, which means that they often carry certain financial resources and/or an educational background (UNHCR 2009b).

While the UNHCR considers urban areas legitimate settings for refugees and IDPs to ensure their fundamental rights (UNHCR 2009a), refugees (and possibly to lesser extent IDPs, too) are often confronted with legal, administrative, financial, cultural and social barriers (UNHCR 2009b). They usually live in the poorest neighbourhoods, concentrated in shanty towns or suburbs, where state capacity to deliver services and infrastructure is weak (THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014). As they may lack legal documents, the displaced communities are vulnerable to exploitation, extortion, arrest and detention, making it difficult for them to find sustainable livelihood options (UNHCR 2015a).

By placing an additional strain on local services and infrastructure, the urban refugee influx can also generate acute and long-lasting problems for its host cities. “Overcrowding, poor living conditions, lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation in urban settings contribute to health emergencies including outbreaks of communicable diseases” (ZETTER and DEIKUN 2010). According to the Global CCCM Cluster (2014), the issue of displaced populations in urban areas constitutes the most pressing challenge within the context of global displacement.

Types of Shelters in Urban Settings

The types of shelters that displaced communities find in urban areas include host families, subsidised or rented houses (individual accommodation) or informal and spontaneous self-settlements of 3 to 5 households (THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014).

 REVERS (2016).

Syrian refugees in their makeshift tent in Erbil. Source: REVERS (2016).

Host Families

This accommodation type describes a setting, where displaced communities find shelter in private households, on land or on properties of local families (DFID, SHELTER CENTRE and OCHA 2008). The refugees or IDPs reside for free or on a rental basis, which is payed either in cash or in kind, for example by offering labour or sharing received relief goods (DFID, SHELTER CENTRE and OCHA 2008). This temporary arrangement is particularly common where social, ethnic or religious relationships between the displaced and the local community exist (IOM, NRC and UNHCR 2015). Post-displacement shelter in a host family may be of short or long term, and the level of humanitarian intervention may vary from substantial assistance to no support at all. As a consequence, resources within host families (and across the entire community), may become strained, particularly in protracted refugee situations (IOM, NRC and UNHCR 2015). Successful support to host family settlement requires assistance to both local and displaced populations to prevent tensions that inevitably stem from the competition over services and resources (IOM, NRC and UNHCR 2015).

Individual Private Accommodation 

Displaced families increasingly find urban shelter by renting private houses or living in subsidised houses assigned and funded by the government. Individual accommodation has increased in the past four years: by the end of 2015, some 67% of all refugees worldwide lived in individual accommodations. In urban locations, the overwhelming majority (99%) of refugees lived in private houses, compared to less than 1% who lived in an urban planned and managed camps. The increase is driven by the rising proportion of Syrian refugees among all refugees, nearly all of whom (97% of those registered) live in individual accommodations (adapted from UNHCR 2016).

In a competitive housing market, displaced populations may be vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Rental agreements may not be formal or enforced, leaving refugees and IDPs without security of tenure and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, rent inflation and speculation may occur if the demand for rented property is high. Available and affordable rental accommodation is often substandard (UNHCR 2015b).

Delivering assistance to refugees and IDPs who live in rented houses is usually challenging, particularly because they are excluded from housing, food and relief assistance schemes (THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014).

Urban Self-Settlement


As refugees from Syria push to find spaces for refuge in Lebanon, informal tent settlements have sprung up across the country. This settlement in Akkar, North Lebanon, is home to eight families. Source: DANISH REFUGEE COUNCIL/ JALIL (2015).

The term urban self-settlement, also called informal settlements and makeshift housing, refers to the situation where displaced populations settle informally in an urban area by occupying unclaimed properties or land (DFID, SHELTER CENTRE and OCHA 2008). In these cases, refugees and IDPs often mix with economic migrants and the local poor, gathering in small informal spontaneous settlements of three to five households (THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014). Often the infrastructure available is rather weak, and the water and sanitation services offered are precarious, if not inexistent. Refugees find themselves in hazardous environments, living on flood plains or hillsides made more vulnerable by deforestation, land erosion and clogging of natural drainage channels. Therefore, they are exposed to a high risk of recurrent natural disasters or conflict (THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER 2014).

Settling without permission in urban areas is problematic for displaced people where there is a constant threat of forced eviction, violent conflict with local populations, exploitation and abuse. The local population and authorities need support in ensuring that resources and communal service infrastructure are not overburdened. Full consultation with formal and informal authorities is necessary to avoid conflicts with existing inhabitants and plans (UNHCR 2015b).

References Library

DFID; SHELTER CENTRE; UN OCHA (2008): Transitional Settlement and Reconstruction after Natural Disasters, Field Edition. Geneva: Department For International Development, The Shelter Centre, And The United Nations Office For The Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

IOM; NHCR; UNHCR (2015): Camp Management Toolkit. Genva: International Organization For Migration. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

REVERS, L. (2016): Integrated Regional Information Networks. Photo. Geneva: ReliefWeb. URL [Accessed: 07.09.2016].

THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER (2014): UDOC Urban Displacement & Outside of Camp. The Global Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster. The Global Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster.

UNHCR (2009): UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 30.08.2016].

UNHCR (2014): Policy on Alternatives to Camps. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 14.07.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 19.09.2016].

UNHCR (2015): Alternatives To Camps - Response In Urban And Rural Settings. In: UNHCR (2015): Emergency Handbook. Geneva. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

UNHCR (2015): Shelter in Urban Areas. In: Emergency Handbook. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 07.09.2016].

ZETTER, R.; DEIKUN, G. (2010): Meeting Humanitarian Challenges in Urban Areas. In: Forced Migration Review. In: Forced Migration Review. Oxford: Forced Migration Review. URL [Accessed: 07.09.2016].

Further Readings Library

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BUSCHER, D., (2011): New Approaches to Urban Refugee Livelihoods. In: Canada's Journal on Refugees 28, 2. Toronto: York University. URL [Accessed: 07.09.2016].

This paper presents the results of assessments undertaken in 2010 and 2011 with urban refugees in Kampala, New Delhi and Johannesburg, laying out strategies to address the challenges confronting urban refugees’ ability to enter and compete in the labour market.

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THE GLOBAL CCCM CLUSTER (2014): UDOC Urban Displacement & Outside of Camp. The Global Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster. The Global Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster.

This desk review looks at issues and challenges of supporting populations in urban displacement settings and outside of camp locations. It aims to explore how CCCM resources and experiences of camp-based responses can be applied to addressing the needs of displaced populations outside of camps, in particular in urban environments.

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UNHCR (2009): Designing Appropriate interventions in urban settings: Health, education, livelihoods and registration for urban refugees and returnees. Geneva: URL [Accessed: 30.08.2016].

The purpose of this summary brochure, based on lessons learned in current operations, is to outline some of these challenges and opportunities, and to suggest appropriate UNHCR interventions in a few critical sectors of assistance and protection for urban refugees and returnees.

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UNHCR (2014): Policy on Alternatives to Camps. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 14.07.2016].

This document describes the UNHCR Policy on alternatives to camp, enforced since July 22, 2014. UNHCR’s policy is to pursue alternatives to camps, whenever possible, while ensuring that refugees are protected and assisted effectively and are able to achieve solutions. The policy is directed primarily towards UNHCR staff members and those responsible for the development of protection, programme and technical policies, standards, guidance, tools and training that support such activities.

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UNHCR (2015): Emergency Handbook. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 16.08.2016].

The UNHCR Emergency Handbook is the 4th edition of UNHCR’s Handbook for Emergencies, first published in 1982. This digital edition is primarily a tool for UNHCR emergency operations and its workforce. It contains entries structured along seven main topic areas: Getting Ready, Protecting and Empowering, Delivering the Response, Leading and Coordinating, Staff Well-Being, Security and Media.

Case Studies Library

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CARRION, D. (2015): Syrian Refugees in Jordan Confronting Difficult Truths. Research Paper. London : Chatam House, , the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Middle East and North Africa Programme. URL [Accessed: 20.07.2016].

This paper argues that the significant stress on Jordan as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis could have long-term social and political ramifications. Its findings are based on more than 70 interviews in 2014–15 with officials in the UN and humanitarian communities, and various levels of Jordanian government, as well as with analysts, refugees, journalists and civil society.

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CHAABAN, J.; SALTI, N.; GHATTAS, H.; IRANI, A.; ISMAIL, T.; BATLOUNI, L. (2016): Survey on the Socioeconomic Status of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon 2015. Beirut: American University of Beirut (AUB) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). URL [Accessed: 20.07.2016].

This report on the critical survey conducted in 2015 by American University in Beirut, examines the implications of protracted displacement for Palestinian refugees that live in Lebanon (PRL) since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49. The survey analyses the differences between the protracted situations of the 42,000 PRL living in Lebanon for the past 68 years and the 1.1 million registered refugees from Syria (PRS) and found that critical differences exists between the two communities. PRS have a higher rate of poverty and unemployment, lower access to employment and decent work conditions and a higher reliance on UNRWA humanitarian assistance, as well as specific challenges related to their legal status in Lebanon. On the other hand, PRL still face one of the worst socioeconomic conditions in the region which are further deteriorated, a high and stagnant rate of poverty, discriminatory laws which impede their ability to improve their living conditions and livelihoods, and decaying transportation, and water and sewage treatment infrastructure in their camps. The survey advocates for ensuring support and services for the most poor, for improving working conditions for refugees, and for engaging youth effectively in increasing access to livelihood opportunities.

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MAYSTADT, J.F.; DURANTON, G. (2014): The Development Push of Refugees: Evidence from Tanzania.. Lancaster: Lancaster University Management School. URL [Accessed: 20.07.2016].

This report presents 1991-2010 household panel findings on the effects of temporary refugee inflow from Burundi and Rwanda and finds that refugees in these contexts had a persistent and positive impact on the local population by increasing real consumption per adult through decreasing transportation cost following increase road building. The report suggests that a new paradigm is needed for dealing with protracted refugee situations and that humanitarian assistance should give way to long-term development efforts. However it is important to be mindful of the applicability of these results to other context given that in Kenya land availably is not an issue and there is not a history of grievance against refugees.

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REACH (Editor) (2014): Syrian Refugees in Host Communities. Key Informant Interviews / District Profiling. Respecting Ethnic and Cultural Heritage.. URL [Accessed: 18.07.2016].

This report presents the results of an assessment gained from 1,445 key informant interviews in host communities on the current situation in 2014 of the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan. The information from the interviews is used to identify key characteristics of the Syrian refugee situation such as challenges in access to cash for housing, to food assistance and winter season non-food items, to schooling for children. The differing situations of rural and urban refugees in different districts in Jordan are described and illustrates the burden in host communities in terms of the pressure on education and employment opportunities, on water resources and sanitation services, on housing availability. The report highlights the need for continued and increased support for Syrian refugees as well as Jordanian households and host communities.

Important Weblinks

www.urbangoodpractices.org [Accessed: 07.09.2016]

This is the website from a team of the UNHCR working in the Division of Programme Support Management and the Policy Development and Evaluation Service. It contains a collection of effective urban refugee programs and interventions.

www.urban-refugees.org [Accessed: 08.09.2016]

This is the website of the organisation Urban Refugees, that supports, connects and advocates for the right of the refugees living in urban areas. It is a resource centre with reports, articles, country snapshots and other key resources.

www.unhcr.org [Accessed: 28.08.2016]

This is the official web site of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, containing key and up-to date information about the status of refugees worldwide, as well as multiple publications and resources.

https://emergency.unhcr.org [Accessed: 16.08.2016]

The UNHCR Emergency Handbook is the 4th edition of UNHCR’s Handbook for Emergencies, first published in 1982. This digital edition is primarily a tool for UNHCR emergency operations and its workforce. It contains entries structured along seven main topic areas: Getting ready, Protecting and empowering, Delivering the response, Leading and coordinating, Staff well-being, Security and Media.