Published on Sustainable Cities

Cities of Refuge: Bringing an urban lens to the forced displacement challenge

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Cities of Refuge
 Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank

The Syrian conflict has reached the grim milestone of becoming the largest displacement crisis since World War II, with over half of the country’s pre-war population having left their homes since 2011—a particularly sobering statistic as we observe International Migrants Day on December 18, 2017 today.

For many of us, the Syrian crisis brings to mind images of refugee families blocked at European borders and sprawling humanitarian camps. Yet the majority of those fleeing the violence have remained in cities inside Syria and in neighboring countries, in the hopes of reaching safety, and accessing better services and jobs.

This shift from camps to cities and towns has critical implications for how to effectively deal with the forced displacement challenge —and it is not confined to Syria, but a reality across many countries affected by conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

The forced displacement crisis in the Middle East is also an urban crisis
Unlike in earlier times, the current forced displacement crises is predominantly an urban crisis . Across the Middle East - in particular Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon - the sudden influx of massive populations has redefined the urban footprint in cities, placing immense stress on local infrastructure, services, housing, and economic opportunities.
Total number of global refugees

The new face of forced displacement:
  • Most of the forcibly displaced live outside of camps: An estimated 80-90% of the forcibly displaced in the Middle East and North Africa region reside in towns and cities, compared to 60% globally, and up from 40% only a few years ago;
  • Forced displacement is projected to be long lasting: More than 80% of refugee crises last for ten years or more, and two in five last 20 years or more, which suggest a lasting impact on the urban footprint across the region;
  • Unequal distribution of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP): While large cities are the most affected if we look at absolute numbers, it is the impact in secondary cities and towns close to borders of conflict affected countries that is especially stark;
  • Those displaced by conflict tend to stay close to home: For each refugee displaced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, there are almost five IDPs.
With the forcibly displaced no longer residing in segregated areas in camps but blending into existing urban populations, traditional programs targeting individuals based on their IDP or refugee status are no longer sufficient. In a constantly evolving urban and social fabric, where the location and needs of host and displaced communities are increasingly hard to distinguish, place-based policies have a central role to play.

Learning how to respond to forced displacement in increasingly urban environments

The World Bank’s urban and social team in MENA has begun to grapple with these issues in a policy note: ‘ Cities of Refuge: Bringing an Urban Lens to the Forced Displacement Challenge.’ The policy note sheds light on the issue of forced displacement from the perspective of receiving towns and cities, and provides a basic framework of “how to think” about these issues:
  • Working with the forcibly displaced and host communities through integrated place-based approaches: Targeted assistance to the displaced should be complemented with place-based development approaches that build on existing national and local governance structures and service delivery mechanisms to better serve all residents. 
  • Blending humanitarian response and development practice at the outset: In most settings, responses to urban forced displacement will need to begin with an emergency humanitarian response and then move to sustained engagement that promotes long term development; yet rather than succeed each other, humanitarian and development actors need to engage in complementary efforts for greater impact throughout the entire period of forced displacement (see figure below). 
  • Interventions on the humanitarian—development nexus vary across different types of cities: Policy responses will need to vary based on the characteristics of receiving cities (depending on size, magnitude of displacement, existing infrastructure and services, and financial and administrative capacity), with a more humanitarian approach in cities caught up in acute violence and destruction, and a stronger development focus in for higher capacity cities that receive a relatively small number of refugees.
  • Learning from existing menu of urban development solutions: Although addressing forced displacement in cities is a relatively new challenge, responses can be informed by proven urban development approaches , ranging from urban upgrading and community driven development to disaster risk management. Such responses should be carefully adapted to the highly sensitive political context in which refugee and IDP crises occur.
Humanitarian Development

Finally, ‘Cities of Refuge’ is a call to action. The report proposes a menu of concrete policies for managing forced displacement with an urban lens. This entails reshaping the political dialogue around urban forced displacement - by expanding our focus beyond the forcibly displaced, and promoting the welfare of all residents, regardless of origin.


Axel Baeumler

Senior Infrastructure Economist

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