Finding space for protection: an inside account of the evolution of UNHCR's urban refugee policy.

Author:Crisp, Jeff


During the past two decades, the issue of urban refugees has occupied an increasingly important place on the global refugee policy agenda. This article traces the evolution of UNHCR's approach to the issue, focusing particularly on the complex and contested nature of the organization's policymaking process.

In that respect, the article examines the key drivers of --and constraints to--policy formulation during the period under review, examining the ways in which those drivers and constraints changed and interacted over time. The article also analyzes the role that different stakeholders, both internal and external to UNHCR, have played in policy formulation. As a result of these dynamics, the article concludes, the formulation of UNHCR policy on urban refugees has been slow and even tortuous.

The article is written from the perspective of a former UNHCR staff member who was extensively engaged in the organization's policymaking and who was responsible for researching and drafting its 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas. The following account draws extensively from the author's access to discussions, documents, and other information that have not been placed in the public domain. While striving for analytical and academic rigour, the article inevitably reflects the position, experiences, and personal views of the author.

Origins of the 1997 Policy

One of the first references to refugees in urban areas of developing countries appears in a 1967 statement by the un high commissioner for refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. "We are confronted more and more frequently," he said, "with a new problem and with a new class of refugees: on the one hand, the students, who are to some extent the elite of the African refugees, and, on the other, refugees who are not employed in agriculture and who are at present concentrated in urban areas and in the big African capitals." (1) Despite this early identification of the urban refugee issue, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that UNHCR, its governmental and non-governmental partners, and the academic community began to give this topic more concerted attention. The timing of that development can be attributed to four principal factors.

First, the number of urban refugees in developing countries was steadily growing, as was international awareness of their presence. Thus between 1984 and 1993, UNHCR undertook internal reviews of its assistance programs for urban refugees in a number of different locations, including Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and several other African states.

Urban refugees also began to attract the attention of researchers and commentators, particularly in Africa. In 1976, Robert Chambers estimated the continent's urban refugee population to be in the region of 15,000, but just three years later, Brian Neldner revised that figure to over 200,000. (2)

Certain urban refugee populations in Africa came under particular academic scrutiny. In 1979, for example, Louise Pirouet prepared a conference paper on urban refugees in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In 1985, Wendy Wallace drew attention to the growing number of refugees living in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, an issue that was subsequently explored in greater detail by Gaim Kibreab. At the end of the 1980s, research undertaken by Derek Cooper began to explore the situation of refugees in Cairo, Egypt, while Marc Sommers and Roos Willems both turned their attention to exiles living in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam. (3)

Second, and as already indicated by Sadruddin Aga Khan in his 1967 statement, urban refugees were regarded and conceived as a problem, even by the most sympathetic commentators. Louise Pirouet, for example, who was an ardent advocate for refugee rights, made these observations in her 1979 paper on refugees in Nairobi, which was tellingly subtitled "Small Numbers, Large Problems":

Urban refugees are usually articulate, aware of at least some of their rights, and expect something more than mere subsistence ... They are able to organize themselves, and are therefore seen as a potential political danger ... The number of refugees in Nairobi has never been large. Yet the presence of only a few thousand refugees created large problems, swelling--as it did--the ranks of the urban poor with people who demanded that they should be helped to something better than mere survival in the Nairobi slums and shanty towns, thus arousing resentment among the Kenyan poor who could not even draw the minimum subsistence rates paid to refugees. (4) Third, while there might have been a growing awareness of urban refugees and the difficulties associated with them, UNHCR failed to develop an organizational policy or any operational guidelines in this domain.

In 1995, for example, an internal discussion paper observed, "Organizational policy regarding urban refugees is particularly weak and unclear, and practice, in terms of both protection and assistance, tends to vary substantially." Although reviews of the organization's urban refugee assistance programs had been undertaken throughout the previous decade, "their recommendations dealt exclusively with the specific objectives of the programmes under examination and made no reference to broader policy issues." The discussion paper consequently recommended "the establishment of a comprehensive policy on urban refugees." (5)

A fourth driver of UNHCR policy at this time was funding. From 1989 onwards, UNHCR expanded very rapidly, largely as a result of new emergencies in the Balkans and Great Lakes region of Africa, as well as large-scale repatriation operations that became possible as armed conflicts in Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and Central America came to an end. As a result of these developments, the organization's budget (most of which is provided by voluntary contributions from donor states) jumped from $570 million in 1989 to $960 million in 1996, an increase of 68 per cent. (6)

Within the organization, concerns were mounting about the sustainability of this growth pattern and a fear that UNHCR would soon be confronted with a serious financial shortfall. Thus at the opening of the 1996 meeting of the organization's governing body, the Executive Committee, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said that while the projected budget for the coming year stood at $1.3 billion, only $776 million had actually been contributed. "I appeal especially to the donors here present," she said, "to make an extra effort for the serious shortfall in our operations."

As well as appealing for additional funds, the high commissioner initiated a campaign to find efficiency savings, and, in her words, "to deliver the changes necessary for UNHCR to perform better with less." (7) In this context, urban refugee assistance budgets came under particularly close examination, partly because they had been steadily rising, but also because on a per capita basis they were thought to be far more expensive than supporting refugees in camps or rural settlements.

UNHCR's examination of its operational refugee budgets also revealed that a growing number of urban refugees were being given monthly cash handouts indefinitely and without obligation to establish a livelihood. Amongst many UNHCRstaff, there was a mounting perception that those refugees had succumbed to the "dependency syndrome" had developed an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and had no real incentive to become self-reliant. They had become, in a popular phrase at that time, "professional refugees"

The 1997 Policy

In response, UNHCR established an Urban Refugee Working Group, which in March 1997 produced a "comprehensive policy on urban refugees" The twenty-three-page document starts out conventionally and uncontroversially enough, observing that the principal objectives of the policy "are to ensure protection and to maximize access to solutions, both for individual refugees and for groups." (8)

As it progresses, however, the policy places an increasingly exclusive emphasis on the difficulties and costs associated with the presence of refugees in urban areas. Urban refugees, it says, are "a global problem" Many urban refugees come from countries with "a long history of migration related to trade and/or a nomadic tradition" or "a history of economically-driven migration ... or have been involved in aliens trafficking."

Having raised such questions about their bona fides, the policy makes a series of negative generalizations about the world's urban refugees. They are "predominantly young, single (or separated) males" "While constituting less than two per cent of UNHCR's refugee caseload" they "demand a disproportionate amount (estimated at 10 to 15 per cent) of the organization's human and financial resources."

Donor states, the policy points out, "have become increasingly selective in terms of the programmes they support ... and show little enthusiasm for long-term care and maintenance of urban cases" As for the refugees themselves, "life in urban areas does not constitute an answer to their problem and may well be significantly more difficult than in a rural settlement."

Three issues feature particularly strongly in the 1997 policy. The first is that of "irregular movers" a topic that occupies no less than a quarter of the document. In contrast, the paper did not include a section on the application of UNHCR's protection mandate to refugees in urban contexts.

According to the policy paper, "a majority of urban cases" consist of refugees "who move in an irregular manner from countries in which they have already found protection in order to seek asylum or permanent settlement elsewhere." Such irregular movements are caused both by "push factors" in the country of first asylum ("intolerance, insecurity, poverty") and by "pull factors" in other states ("better economic conditions, higher levels of care and maintenance assistance, access to secondary and tertiary...

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