Blog post written by Dr Lucy Hovil (International Refugee Rights Initiative). Lucy is also the Managing Editor of the International Journal of Transitional Justice and RLI Senior Research Associate. This post forms part of a series of blog posts analysing the potential and shortcomings of the Global Compact on Refugees.


Contrary to public perception, the majority of refugees live in cities and towns rather than camps. In these urban spaces, some send their children to school, generate livelihoods and successfully negotiate their own way through exile. Others barely survive: they cope on a daily basis with the ongoing threat of arrest and with the reality or threat of terrible poverty. But they remain in urban areas because it is still better than a camp, even without the help of humanitarian assistance.


Yet despite this reality, for many years urban refugees have remained marginalised – or even ignored – in policy discussions. They have moved to towns and cities to carve out livelihoods despite the policy environment not because of it. In fact, they have voted with their feet against policies that have emphasised encampment over freedom of movement, that have restricted access to work and coerced them into long-term dependence on erratic humanitarian assistance, and that have failed to recognise the reality that most refugees find themselves displaced for decades rather than months.


So, does the Global Compact on Refugees reverse this policy neglect? In the most general of terms, it has the potential to improve the situation of urban refugees inasmuch as it was negotiated to provide a new framework for refugee interventions to deliver better protection and solutions to refugees and to better support the front-line states that host the majority of the world’s refugees.


Furthermore, the second of the Compact’s four objectives, namely “to enhance refugee self-reliance”, speaks to the experience of urban refugees. There is ample evidence – in fact, just common sense – to show that movement is a key coping strategy for people caught up in situations where their environment compels them to seek safety and livelihoods. It also makes sense that people would move to where there are jobs and opportunities – which is often in urban areas.


It is positive, therefore, that the Compact explicitly extends its provisions to refugees regardless of their physical location, covering camps and non-camp settings in both rural and urban areas. It refers to the need to “respond to [the] reality” that increasingly refugees find themselves in urban and rural areas outside of camps (66) and talks about the need “to share good practices and innovative approaches to responses in urban settings” (38). More specifically it explicitly extends provision on engaging local actors, strengthening infrastructure and managing environmental challenges to urban as well as rural areas.


The Compact also seeks to improve access to livelihoods, one of the key realities that drive refugees to urban areas by seeking to “foster inclusive economic growth for refugees and host communities,” suggesting that international assistance could be provided for job creation, labour market analysis and offering training. (70) It also suggests that preferential trade agreements “could be explored in line with relevant international obligations, especially for goods and sectors with high refugee participation in the labour force; as could instruments to attract private sector and infrastructure investment and support the capacity of local businesses.” (71)


But much of this is implicit rather than explicit. Given the prominence of urban-based displacement, it is curious how little direct reference there is to the reality of urban displacement. In fact, it only mentions the word ‘urban’ five times (paras 37, 38, 66, 78 and 79), and the words ‘urban’ and ‘refugees’ never appear in conjunction.


Most significantly, perhaps, the Compact fails to make an explicit link between movement and livelihoods. There is almost an underlying assumption that refugee populations are somehow static (and yes, probably in camps) – which, as already stated, is not the case.


This is a significant oversight, as the Compact misses an opportunity not only to reinforce the right to freedom of movement but to emphasise the potential benefits to host states of allowing refugees to find livelihoods and contribute to local economies. Once again, therefore, urban refugees are left on the policy fringes.


So why is this? The arguments in favour of encampment are well rehearsed, as is the reluctance of governments to allow refugees to settle where they choose. Political expediency continues to push for limitations on movement in many parts of the globe, whether through encampment policies, increased focus on border controls or through drawing upon securitised narratives to justify restrictions on those who move outside of camps.


However, it is encouraging to see that despite this, many of the countries that are hosting some of the largest numbers of refugees are relaxing their policies on encampment and are allowing for greater mobility. Uganda and Ethiopia are key examples. And while their progress in this regard should not be overstated – in Uganda, for instance, refugees are still legally required to gain permission to leave the camps, and assistance in urban areas remains all but non-existent – at least the policy discussion is heading in the right direction. Likewise, a new refugee law in Ethiopia is set to enhance freedom of movement (although it is not yet clear how this will be implemented in practice).


However, for refugees living in urban areas or wanting to leave behind the constraints of camps, this progress must feel slow and frustrating. It still means that many urban refugees are being forced to go against the global policy grain, finding some self-reliance and some stability but in a way that is not only inefficient but often precarious.



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.