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Global survey of the implementation of UNHCR’s Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas

Summary of review1

The advent of the 2009 Urban Refugee Policy (see Box 1) definitively changed UNHCR’s approach to working with urban refugees and established clear protection objectives. In 2012, the UNHCR’s Urban Refugee Steering Group commissioned a review of its largest urban refugee operations in 2012. This involved a detailed survey that was sent to UNHCR’s 24 operations with urban refugee programmes that numbered more than 5,000 according to UNHCR’s 2011 statistics. The survey sought to gauge the rate of implementation for each of the 24 UNHCR operations against the twelve protection strategies set forth in the policy. The aim was to provide a baseline for future implementation measurements and to identify good practices and specific challenges concerning urban refugees.

Box 1: Targeting design options

UNHCR policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas (2009)

Until 2008, UNHCR continued to give primary attention to those refugees who were accommodated in camps, encouraged by UNHCR’s 1997 policy statement on refugees in urban areas that assumed refugees were more the exception and less the norm. Recognising the need to address the issue of urban refugees in a more comprehensive manner, UNHCR replaced the 1997 policy statement with a 2009 policy.

This document set out a number of clear statements about urban refugees and the new policy including:

  • ‘Urban area’ was defined as a built-up area that accommodates large numbers of people living in close proximity to each other, and where the majority of people sustain themselves by means of formal and informal employment and the provision of goods and services. While refugee camps share some of the characteristics of an urban area, they are excluded from this definition.
  • The policy is based on UNHCR’s mandate to protect the rights of refugees and to find solutions to their plight.
  • The 2009 policy implementation will take account of the UNHCR and partner experiences and effective practices in urban contexts.
  • In some countries, refugees have the option of living in a camp or organised settlement, whereas in others they do not. Some countries with urban refugee populations have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and provide refugees with a legal status, residence rights and the right to work. In other countries such conditions do not prevail. In some countries where camps exist, refugees are officially obliged to stay there. In other countries, the movement of refugees from camps to urban areas is either permitted or tolerated.

The 2009 policy does not provide detailed operational guidelines, or deal with internally displaced persons or returnees in urban areas. It recognised the need adaptation to the specific circumstances of different countries and cities. It is primarily related to the situation of urban refugees in developing and middle-income countries where UNHCR has a presence and an operational role.

To achieve the policy objectives, an appropriate resource base would be required, coupled with effective cooperation and support from a wide range of other actors, especially those host governments and city authorities in the developing world that hosted the growing number of urban refugees.

The policy intended to apply to refugees in all urban areas, recognising that UNHCR would be constrained in its ability to attain this objective in countries where refugees were scattered across a large number of urban locations.

The policy paper deals with a number of key themes related to urban refugees:

  • Securing the rights of urban refugees
  • Expanding protection space
  • Respecting key principles
  • Implementing comprehensive protection strategies (e.g. providing reception facilities, undertaking registration and data collection, determining refugee status, reaching out to the community promoting livelihoods and self-reliance, ensuring access to healthcare, education and other services).

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, September 2009. Available at: [accessed 4 September 2013]


Despite the 2009 policy’s radical departure from its predecessor, operations were reporting that they were implementing the policy to a large extent. At the same time, they also highlight very real gaps, challenges and constraints in working with urban refugees. Although the plight of urban refugees is most deeply understood on the regional level, universal themes have emerged from this global analysis. All the themes point to the necessity of employing new methods with more innovative tools such as interactive websites and mobile messaging; engaging diverse actors such as neighbourhood chairmen and local merchants societies and advocating for urban refugees on the basis of their potential added value, as opposed to on the basis of human rights.

Key findings from the survey were as follows.

Documentation and status determination

Many urban refugees are often unable to formalise their status and obtain documentation due to distances to government or UNHCR offices, related travel costs, fees, a lack of awareness of the registration process among urban refugees and fear of arrest. Because of these vulnerabilities, UNHCR operations should continue to explore methods that provide registration, documentation and status determination in a more efficient manner. This is especially critical in urban areas where the lack or non-recognition of documentation is linked to the provision of basic human services.

On-going good practices include the use of mobile teams, enhanced neighbourhood and municipal partnerships, the exploitation of appropriate communication technology, and, training of government officials involved in protection documentation. Across the board, it was found that the operations had insufficient space to receive refugees and asylum seekers and not enough staff who spoke their languages; it was recommended that operations invest to increase their use of communications technology, capacitate partners and streamline registration, documentation and status determination processes.

Constructive community relations and security

As the survey findings repeatedly flagged both the importance and difficulty of reaching out to urban refugees, new approaches could be tried to both foster effective refugee community structures and provide programmes that are mutually beneficial for refugees and host neighbourhoods. To date, there have been good results with the use of sms messaging, question & answer sessions, participatory assessments, partnerships with community-based organizations, recreational and cultural activities and educational programmes to help refugee communities come together. These good practices are consistent with the survey finding that it is the relationship with civil society at large, as opposed to a specific government entity, that is the key to expanding the protection space for urban refugees and asylum seekers. Pro-active outreach is essential for refugees to be aware of the protective mechanisms, services, livelihood opportunities and durable solutions available to them - through UNHCR, government or civil society - and to understand how to access them. New and non-traditional partners (mosques, churches, merchants associations, city social workers, etc.) could be enlisted to help promote integration and protection for refugees.

Survey findings also clearly reinforced the link between effective outreach and communication with refugees and prevention of security incidents. Paradoxically, survey findings indicated that many offices find that the defensive security protocols, prescribed to help keep UNHCR property and staff safe, actually make it harder to be accessible and responsive to refugee needs and to build the rapport with refugee communities, which in turn helps to keep the office safe.

A safe and sustainable existence for urban refugees

Urban refugees’ access to viable livelihoods is the key factor establishing their well-being or even just survival. If urban refugees can secure a livelihood and meet their basic material needs, they can better manage (and afford) to access services like education and health. Often this debate around livelihoods focuses on whether or not the host government provides refugees with the legal right to work per se. However, access to financial capital, credit and banking services is in fact more salient. Other factors – the socio-economic situation in the host country, refugees’ skills relevant for the urban economy, freedom of movement, the status of refugees’ documents and perceptions about resettlement - also significantly influence whether urban refugees can be self-reliant or not. UNHCR operations should explore other avenues when the advocacy for the right to work is blocked or detrimental to negotiations for safeguarding the larger protection space.

UNHCR should continue to invest in the on-going efforts to support refugees’ self-reliance beyond the advocacy for the right to work, such as targeted training programmes, support for small-scale informal market activities and collaboration with established civil society programmes. However, there is a sense among some staff that UNHCR does not possess adequate expertise internally or among traditional partners to creatively and holistically address livelihoods for urban refugees. Most survey respondents indicated that they would welcome the continued development of innovative livelihood programmes that link to cash transfers and durable solutions within the context of civil society partnerships.

Resettlement is the primary durable solution for urban refugees. By necessity, resettlement continues to be an important strategic tool used to leverage protection space in those countries that maintain restrictive legislation and practice regarding refugees. However, this clearly runs the risk of creating or exacerbating a pull factor into these urban areas. Furthermore, UNNHCR offices reported that refugees may be reticent to invest in livelihood activities in their country of displacement for fear that it might undermine their chances for resettlement. Finally, resettlement drives UNHCR registration and refugee status determination efforts, which are already stretched past capacity. When operations send clear messages to refugees about the actual likelihood of resettlement, it can motivate refugees to invest more in their livelihoods and education.

In several countries, patient advocacy and diplomacy has resulted in more progressive domestic legislation specific to refugees. In these countries, the possibility of local integration and permanent residence has been linked to livelihood programmes, which is a promising practice. However, it is important to recognise that some countries with restrictive refugee regimes are not likely to loosen their migration and refugee policies in the foreseeable future. In these cases, the best course may be to advocate for minor changes in policy and practice that can function as protective mechanisms rather than wholesale improvement of the legal framework.

Constructive engagement with host country governments and development of those governments’ capacity to assist in addressing refugee issues are important tools.

Summary of recommendations

Urban areas are expansive and intricate environments in which to promote refugee protection. Refugees themselves live in marginal neighbourhoods with the urban poor, use the same (often underdeveloped) services and are linked with them through local economic activity. In many contexts, refugees (and the host communities) perceive that their stay is temporary pending resettlement, thus resettlement oriented refugees are less keen to invest in community structures, livelihood activities, learning the language and other integration efforts, which leaves them more reliant on UNHCR. On the other hand, there are untold numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who are trying to stay concealed from the government and UNHCR so that they may remain unnoticed for a long time. It is possibly, this uncounted, unregistered population that has made greater strides toward integration. Thus, the survey results corroborate that effective refugee protection in this complex context requires a multi-faceted, open approach.

Recommendations for a way forward for UNHCR include:

Multi-level, systemic and holistic engagement with key government actors

Innovative and extensive approaches to community outreach and development

Stronger linkages between material assistance, livelihoods/self-reliance, local integration and community development

A review of how UNHCR uses durable solutions strategically to enhance protection

A consultation with key actors on refugee protection in urban contexts

Access the full report at:

Show footnotes

1Learning from the city. British Red Cross Urban Learning Project Scoping Study.

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Reference this page

Global survey of the implementation of UNHCR’s Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas. Field Exchange 46: Special focus on urban food security & nutrition, September 2013. p35.



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