The plight of urban refugees

Frido Pflüger SJ
Former JRS Eastern Africa Regional Director
Sunday, November 14, 2010

When we think of refugees, images of big crowded camps normally cross our mind. Over the past few years, however, there has been a growing trend of refugees moving into cities. This is in line with the global trend towards urbanisation. More than three billion people - the majority of the world’s population - now inhabit towns and cities worldwide with nearly half of them living in slums and informal settlements.

In sub-Saharan Africa, six out of ten refugees still live in refugee camps or settlements. Globally, however, it is estimated that half of the over 15 million refugees reside in urban areas. Yet the exact size of the largely hidden refugee population in towns and cities is not known.

Their reasons for moving to the cities vary: in the camps refugees face harsh living conditions, lack of space, medical facilities, adequate education and high insecurity. Other factors are tightening asylum policies and protracted refugee situations due to continuing conflict in countries of origin, as well as hopes of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence in displacement. Seeking refuge in urban settings, however, presents many challenges and refugees in cities are often more vulnerable than those who choose to stay in the camps.

Most asylum seekers reach the cities without any means of survival, social networks or language skills; they often live in miserable conditions, sleeping on the floor or sharing small bare rooms in crowded, poor neighbourhoods. They receive no or far less assistance than those residing in the camps and are expected to be self-sufficient, although many have no source of income. While they contribute to the local economy through informal employment, they have tremendous difficulties accessing formal employment.

In Eastern Africa, JRS started assisting urban refugees in the early 1990s and is still one of the few organisations to support them with food, rent, education and livelihoods. Through projects in the three capitals Kampala, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, JRS provided emergency assistance to 11,600 refugees in 2009 alone.

This year on November 14, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of JRS. We will use this opportunity to take a closer look at the situation of refugees living in urban areas in our region, thereby acknowledging that urban displacement has emerged as a new challenge in meeting the needs of refugees in Eastern Africa. May the readings in this anniversary edition of our newsletter bring you closer to those most vulnerable among the displaced. I hope it will encourage you to become active on their behalf.