For most people, the word ‘refugee’ conjures images of endless rows of white tents spread out over a dusty plain. But this does not give an accurate picture of what life is like for millions of refugees in the 21st century. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, today more than half of the world’s refugees live in the slums of some of the world's biggest cities, such as Bangkok in Thailand, Amman in Jordan, and Nairobi in Kenya.
Refugees fleeing conflict or natural disaster are now more likely to head towards urban areas than refugee camps. Many cannot return home because of conflict or insecurity and must build new lives in their adopted city. These five million urban refugees face distinct challenges as they struggle to build new lives in their adopted cities. While many are able carve out a new way of life, others instead face isolation, poverty and exploitation.
Discrimination, harassment and abuse
In most cases, urban refugees do not have legal recognition in their adopted city, making it difficult to access basic services and exposing them to exploitation. Even in countries where they do have legal recognition, urban refugees face frequent harassment by police, including beatings, intimidation, illegal, detention and demands for bribes. Refugee women in cities are vulnerable to sexual violence, human smuggling and trafficking.
How we are helping
The International Rescue Committee is leading the way in finding innovative ways to support urban refugees to rebuild their lives. We are helping people in some of the poorest communities in cities in Kenya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Thailand and Haiti.
Protection and legal assistance
Many refugees find it difficult to access the help they need because they do not have the necessary documentation or are unaware of their rights. The IRC is providing legal assistance to refugees, helping them to understand their rights and to gain access to justice.
The IRC trains and develops the skills of local authorities and civil society so that urban refugees can access essential services such as health and education. We also advocate with host governments to extend access to existing services to the urban refugee population.
The IRC monitors refugee numbers and conditions in some of the world’s biggest cities and slums. We use this information to advocate for more services from local authorities and greater attention from the international community.
Addressing violence against women
The IRC trains local service providers to provide care, referral and support services to survivors of violence against women and girls and victims of child abuse among refugees as well as the wider urban population.
Empowering the vulnerable
The IRC is helping to increase the involvement of refugees in civil society by bringing urban refugees into discussions with local authorities, helping them to learn the local language and advocate for their rights.