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Urban Refugees

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Trying to Get By in the City

The iconic image of refugees is row upon row of white tents in a sprawling emergency camp. But the reality is that only one-third of the world's 10.5 million refugees now live in camps. Like 3.3 billion other people on Earth, they have been steadily moving to cities and towns, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s. More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas, with the remainder outside camps living in rural areas. In the future, more and more refugees will be trying to survive in cities and towns, as will former refugees who return to their homelands and those displaced inside their countries.

Unlike a closed camp, cities present obvious opportunities to stay anonymous, make money, and build a better future. But they also present dangers: refugees may not have legal documents that are respected, they may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention, and they can be in competition with the poorest local workers for the worst jobs.

In the past, many refugees in cities were young men with the skills and savvy to survive on their own. These days they are increasingly women, who may have been raped or molested in escaping their countries, children and older people who all need special help. In large anonymous cities they often have a hard time finding their way to UNHCR for the support they need, and the UN refugee agency, for its part, cannot provide services as easily as in a camp.

In 2009, UNHCR changed its policy towards refugees in cities and towns, partly as a result of its experiences in helping some 400,000 of the nearly 2 million Iraqis displaced since 2003, most of whom fled to big cities in neighbouring countries.

What is clear is that wherever refugees are - in cities or in camps - they have the same human rights, and both UNHCR and host states have an obligation to protect them and respect their refugee status. And the UN refugee agency needs to work in more innovative partnerships with municipalities, local community associations and others to adequately serve refugees in towns and cities.



Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.
Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Surviving in the City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Play video

Surviving in the City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia is a largely urban country, with 60 per cent of the population living in cities. Life for a refugee in Kuala Lumpur is challenging. Refugees cannot work legally and most live in fear of detention, despite having received a refugee card from UNHCR.

2009 Dialogue on Protection Challenges

Two-day international discussion focuses on problems faced by the increasing numbers of displaced in cities and towns.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Many Malaysians are astonished to learn that there are refugees living in their country. That's how invisible most of the 67,800 refugees in Malaysian towns and cities are. They don't live in camps, but in low-cost flats and houses alongside the homes of Malaysians. The refugees, overwhelmingly from Myanmar, live in tight-knit groups with as many as 20 or 30 people in one small flat.

As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Colombia: A struggle for rights

Overlooked by the rest of the world, decades of violent internal conflict have forced more than 3.5 million Colombians from their homes, with more fleeing nearly every day. Some seek shelter overseas, but about 80 percent head for urban centres within the country.

For most, towns and cities represent much-prized safety after seeing loved ones killed, or rescuing their children from threats of forced conscription. But the places where they can afford to live are usually the poorest barrios - located on a landslide-prone cliff or, perhaps, a flood-plagued beachfront.

Rural people and farmers also often find it a challenge to make a living in a town or city. Instead of growing plantains and catching fish, they now have to somehow earn enough money every day to feed their families.

Traumas also follow displaced Colombians. Formerly independent women used to working or staying alone now need to have others around constantly.

UNHCR is working with the Colombian government to make services available to forcibly displaced people. An important first step is a long-standing collaboration under which more than 3 million displaced Colombians have received identity cards.

Colombia: A struggle for rights

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence