The key challenges in today's urban refugee setup

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 19 June 2015

Vulnerable refugees living in Gazientep, southeast Turkey. Refugees’ preference to live outside tents makes for a challenging setup in providing assistance. Photo by: Caroline Gluck / ECHO / EU / CC BY-ND 

The number of displaced persons has been increasing every year since 2011, reaching a staggering 59.5 million end of 2014.

This number sets another milestone in displacement — but it is not exactly surprising. Given the multiple conflicts and natural disasters happening around the world from Syria to Iraq, alongside protracted crises such as in Afghanistan and Colombia, the higher numbers — and the expectation that they will rise further — come as no surprise.

But changes are happening. Globally today, more internally displaced persons and refugees are living outside the traditional camp settings, some as part of national policy as in the case of Lebanon. Nearly 7.6 million or 63.2 percent of the 12.2 million refugees for which the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has geographic data are living in individual accommodations.

But in places like Turkey, which according to UNHCR’s the latest World Refugee Report plays host to the largest number of refugees today, the change can be seen as a demonstration of refugees’ preference to live outside tents, less restricted by rules and less dependent on aid.

This change is not resented but actually welcomed — at least on paper — by refugee agencies like UNHCR, which last year launched its Alternatives to Camps policy. Under the policy, the agency aims to make camps the “exception and, to the extent possible, a temporary measure.”

The idea is driven by the lessons and realizations by relief groups in recent years, when they found that camps have a tendency to become a breeding ground for extremism, expose already vulnerable persons like women and children to further abuses and other forms of exploitation, and create aid dependency among IDPs and refugees.

“After 10 or 15 years, if somebody has lived in a refugee camp, you cannot even use him or her for anything anymore. He is not able to go to a local supermarket, because he has become so used to receiving [assistance] on a daily basis,” Martin Gottwald, deputy representative of UNHCR in Colombia, told Devex ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20.

This becomes a problem once humanitarian funding shrinks, and organizations are forced to cut assistance or limit it to the most vulnerable.

But providing humanitarian to refugees outside camp settings is far from ideal either, and presents different challenges. And while organizations on the ground have begun sharing best practices on dealing with urban refugees, these challenges are not likely to be overcome soon. The reasons vary, ranging from organizational culture to short-sightedness by different stakeholders to governments putting too much emphasis on their own interests.

The case of Lebanon

Lebanon is one of those countries where formal refugee camps have never been setup, and therefore one of the best test cases to try outside camp refugee approaches.

But the government being a nonsignatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention makes the approach more challenging. The legal protection for refugees in the country is limited, and now, new government policy implemented just this year had made the environment tougher for both aid groups and refugees.

The government now requires Syrian refugees staying in Lebanon to pay $200 in residency permit, secure a signed contract with their landlords if they are renting, or have someone in government or a Lebanese organization or company to vouch for them.

But above all, the government is also asking them to sign a document pledging not to work in the country — supposedly to weed out those who are taking advantage of the Syrian crisis to find better economic opportunities in Lebanon.

The very move meant Syrians won’t have any means to support themselves or become self-reliant. As a result, many refugees may go into hiding, making it difficult for aid agencies to reach them to provide assistance and protection or monitor their conditions.

Compounding the problem is government asking UNHCR to stop registration of new refugees.

The decision stems from the economic pressures the government is experiencing as host to more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Tensions have risen between refugees and host communities, with the former often regarded as competition for limited resources and opportunities in the country.

But a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity notes the rules are “harsh” under the current circumstances, and that UNHCR is currently advocating for the review of the requirements, taking into account the government’s political and security concerns, but “ensuring refugees have access to their most basic needs and survive in Lebanon under tolerable conditions.”

The U.N. refugee agency is also explaining the critical role of registration and why it’s important for it to continue.

A bigger emphasis is placed on allowing Syrians to work, most of whom have already exhausted their own resources and would need to find the means to support their needs beyond the aid they receive.

The case of Colombia

Traditional camp settings have never been the norm in Colombia as well, whether for the country’s 6 million IDPs or the more than 300,000 Colombians residing in the neighboring countries of Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador.

This is because displacement in Colombia didn’t happen all in one go, but rather in small quantities over a long period.

As a result, some of these IDPs are spread out in small numbers across different parts of the country, making it difficult for aid agencies to track them. Worse, those that have found themselves residing in big cities like Medellin and in the Pacific coast have become vulnerable to intraurban displacement due to internal conflict, such as armed combat in their vicinity, debt threats or the presence of organized crimes.

So to track them, the Norwegian Refugee Council conducts regular field missions in which staff go to areas identified to be most affected by internal conflict or where services are not easily accessible. NRC meanwhile works with local communities and institutions to track and reach those who don’t openly come out for assistance, or who are not aware of their rights to access assistance and have therefore resorted to “invisibility” as a primary coping mechanism, according to Christian Visnes, the council’s country director in Colombia.

But getting them to open up and be trusting is a challenge. Visnes therefore underscores the importance of an organization maintaining independence and neutrality. He agrees though that the perception of displaced people will always be subjective.

UNHCR’s Gottwald seconded the difficulty.

“In Bogota, go to local supermarket, and you see very poor people in front of the supermarket asking for money. It cannot be concluded that these people are IDPs who have fled their homes a couple of weeks or months ago because of local violence. It could also be local men who ended up with extreme poverty. So you don’t know who’s who in the end,” he said. “They don’t necessarily stay in one area; they have different houses or shelter, or they are living in the streets or in the local park. It’s very difficult to set up an efficient and effective program for them.”

The case of Turkey

In Turkey, the situation is starting to look more and more the same, although there are still refugees who remain in camps.

According to Ali Fuat Sutlu, Syrian relief program coordinator for Turkish NGO Hayata Destek, only the government and a few partners, such as the Turkish Red Crescent and U.N. agencies like UNHCR, are allowed to operate in camps. That’s why most NGO activities, national or international, are concentrated outside the camps.

For Hayata Destek, this means providing protective care to refugees, including psychosocial support, helping them cope with their situation. Many urban refugees are subject to child labor, early marriages, prostitution, mendicancy and cheap labor.

The organization is also providing them cash assistance for food, a program it recently expanded to include other basic necessities.

Given the limited resources they have for this type of assistance, however, the organization had to put in place a system to identify the most vulnerable. And this can be challenging, given how spread out refugees are. So what it does is engage with other humanitarian organizations and so-called neighborhood authorities to help locate the refugees.

Hayata Destek employs a scoring system to identify the most vulnerable, and provide them e-cards, one of the most popular forms of providing assistance to IDPs and refugees. These e-cards are loaded with money, which the beneficiaries can use in select markets or stores. When it’s time for replenishment, the organization will send them text messages — assuming they have mobile phones — to inform them of when can they use the e-cards again.

The cards are also useful in tracking the spending habit of refugees and see which items they usually purchase. They also allow the organization to keep track of the amount spent as well as the refugees’ needs, helping it assess impact and ensure accountability to donors.

Sutlu said there have been no major issues with the distribution of e-cards, apart from rare occurrences where beneficiaries try to game the system by hiding their assets like cars and jewelry or bring a neighbor with disability. There are also households that don’t register purchases, making it virtually impossible for the organization to track them.

What Hayata Destek does is one of the more popular best practices taken by a wide range of actors in providing assistance to refugees and IDPs living outside camps: providing e-cards and partnering with private companies, although the latter seems to be happening at a small scale.

Areas for improvement

Amid these advances, urban refugee approaches remain limited. One of the major reasons links to organizational structure. For so long, organizations like UNHCR have been used to working in camp settings, and so the shift to providing assistance outside that zone has been a steep learning curve.

But there are other issues, such as getting governments on board.

In Bogota, for example, UNHCR’s Gottwald said there are not too many interventions for urban refugees. This is because most of them live in slums, where the government has no control, and where there is absence of state authorities because of safety issues.

“The state will also not accept UNHCR or other actors to access these areas and set up programs. So there is a tendency of governments to turn a blind eye to these areas and make sure they don’t become too visible,” he said.

But this needs to change, if state authorities want to prevent future conflicts from happening. These areas, where they tend not to intervene, can also be breeding grounds for armed groups, criminal networks and other illegal activities that could overrun the security of the country.

“These places have become somehow the source of the new conflicts hunting us in the 21st century. What’s going on in Central America could easily happen in Colombia,” the UNHCR official said.

Stakeholders also need to work more closely to ensure that no areas are being neglected. Some development actors, according to Gottwald, are following Colombia’s national development agenda, which again does not prioritize interventions in urban areas.

Gottwald hopes these issues will be tackled at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016.

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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