"Forgotten," "hidden": predicaments of the urban refugee.

Author:Marfleet, Philip


Urban refugees are widely viewed as anomalous--people who stand outside a refugee regime which, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is based upon rural encampment. This article considers why states and humanitarian agencies view urban refugees in this way. It examines the history of the refugee as an urban person and the recent change in perspective which has enforced a rural norm. It considers the extreme pressures placed upon displaced people in the city and the consequences for communities which contest their marginal status.


Les refugies urbains sont generalement consideres comme une anomalie--des gens qui ne tombent pas sous le domaine d'application d'un regime de refugie qui, en Africlue, en Asie et en Amerique latine, est fonde sur des camps ruraux. Cet article traite des raisons pour lesquelles les etats et les organismes humanitaires concoivent les refugies urbains de cette facon. II examine l'histoire du refugie comme citadin, ainsi que le changement de perspective intervenu recemment qui a impose une norme rurale. II tient compte des pressions extremes exercees sur les personnes deplacees clans les villes et les consequences pour les communautes qui contestent leur marginalite.

Urban refugees, observed Rogge and Akol, are "forgotten people." Writing in the late 1980s, they noted that large communities of displaced people in the cities of Africa were unrecognized by the authorities and lived at the margins of local society. (1) Over ten years later, after repeated mass displacements across the continent, the situation was unchanged: Human Rights Watch commented on the many urban refugees "hidden" to governments and international agencies. (2) This apparent conundrum--the presence/absence of urban refugee communities--is in fact a global phenomenon. More and more refugees are city dwellers whose existence is denied by governments and agencies. This article considers the policy of denial and its implications for refugees.

The urban refugee presents a special case of the problem presented to state authorities by migrants in general. In a recent assessment of global migration policy Cohen comments that "nothing is as disturbing to national societies as the movement of people." (3) Although of enormous importance to many receiving societies, especially in the economic context, migration represents a challenge to the modern state. The presence (or anticipated presence) of migrants may disturb ideas about citizenship, national integrity, and local rights and responsibilities. In the case of forced migrants--people engaged in movements that are usually unplanned and unexpected--the authorities may perceive a threat to their control over territorial borders and to their authority in defining "internal" cultural boundaries. Mass movements of refugees are seldom welcome, unless they fulfill a specific economic or ideological function, and states may go to great lengths to exclude incomers and/or to isolate them from the wider society.

Urban refugee communities present a further difficulty. Power is invariably concentrated in cities and it is in the urban context that the state exercises authority in the most assertive and exemplary fashion. At times of economic instability or political crisis the presence of non-national communities can become especially problematic as they are targeted by nativist or nationalist currents and/or by the state itself. One outcome--and a further paradox associated with the urban refugee--is that people who are usually "invisible" can quickly become the focus of high-profile campaigns of exclusion.

Urbanism and the Refugee

Over the past thirty years the urban refugee has been viewed as anomalous and sometimes as illegitimate and unacceptable to state authorities and international agencies. This is especially striking in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where in some countries urban communities now contain a large majority of the displaced population. The reluctance or even refusal of governments and officials to recognize them is inconsistent with historic practice, for traditionally people recognized as refugees have been of urban origin and have found sanctuary in urban environments.

In ancient traditions of sanctuary and of asylum, such as those recorded in Jewish and Indian religious texts, certain cities were identified as places of refuge. (4) In ancient Greece the institution of asylon embraced an understanding between city states that their citizens would be accommodated unharmed in places protected by local deities. A similar approach afforded the exsul (exile) of ancient Rome protection guaranteed by gods associated with specific sanctuaria, usually located in major cities. (5) In Arabia key trading centres were also sanctuaries where fugitives could expect protection. In Islamic tradition--born in the cities of Hijaz in the seventh century CE--displacement, flight, and sanctuary became integral to principles of the faith and were recognized in the notions of hijra ("emigration"/flight) and muhajir ("emigrant"/"exile"/"refugee"), and celebrated in the practice of hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Najaf, Karbala, and many lesser urban centres. (6)

In medieval Europe sanctuary was based upon the idea of inviolability of religious sites, of which the most important were the great abbeys, monasteries, and city cathedrals. When these traditions changed in the early modern era, giving way to notions about asylum granted by the nation-state, the first groups accommodated as refugees were people of urban origin who found sanctuary in the cities of the receiving society. The Huguenots of France were urbanites--mainly entrepreneurs, merchants, traders, and artisans-who moved primarily to the cities of Switzerland, Holland, England and Ireland. In the case of the much-celebrated emigration to England, the great majority of Huguenots moved to London: a small number settled in other towns; very few settled in rural areas. (7)

Over the next two hundred years all manner of people were displaced by upheavals in Europe: of those who benefited from asylum rights most originated in the urban elite. Marrus notes that during the nineteenth century the great majority of those recognized as political exiles or as emigres--the terms most closely correlated with today's definitions of the refugee-were bourgeois. (8) They were people of "the relatively well-to-do or, at least of the once well-to-do." (9) Most had played a leading role in nationalist movements such as those in Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Poland, or were radical activists from France and Germany--people (almost invariably men) involved in modernizing, essentially urban projects who sought sanctuary in cities in which they could maintain communication with other exiles and with movements in their countries of origin. So many activists settled in London that in the mid-Victorian era the city became known as "Little Germany." (10) Some European cities also accommodated leading figures from the embryonic anti-colonial movements of the Middle East and Asia. All were urban radicals, for rural activists (such as the guerrilla fighters who opposed French forces in North Africa) seldom left the remote areas which were their military bases. (11)

There were exceptions to the "rule" of urbanism. In the late eighteenth century Loyalist groups in Britain's American colonies who opposed independence and the establishment of a United States of America were rewarded with grants of land in Canada: in effect they became rural refugees. A hundred years later refugees from the Franco-Prussian war were directed by the French government to Algeria, where some were placed on land seized from the indigenous inhabitants. Even they were a minority of the colon population, however, for most pieds-noirs--including refugees from Europe-were implanted in the cities of Maghreb. (12)

The pattern began to change in the late nineteenth century, when large numbers of people living in territories under Tsarist rule sought sanctuary in North America and western Europe. Most were Jews from Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states who fled increasingly intensive anti-Semitism, and many were of rural origin--poor and ill-educated people who proved much less attractive to receiving states than the emigres of an earlier era. (13) In an important development the British government closed its borders against them, using the Aliens Act--the first legislation of the modern era to deny entry to people seeking asylum. For the next fifty years most mass displacements in Europe and neighbouring regions were of a similar social composition: during the First World War some six million people were affected in Russia alone, most of whom were peasants from provinces occupied by German forces. (14) Few were regarded as suitable candidates for asylum and very few became refugees, even on the loose, informal basis operated by most state authorities. It was the fate of people of rural origin that as more were displaced they had fewer opportunities to find places of sanctuary, for by the 1930s most states of Europe and North America had closed their borders to intending immigrants. (15)

Elite class

When the first international legal regime on asylum came into existence after the Second World War it was based upon the preference of certain states for refugees of a specific social status. Those who wrote the Geneva Convention and shaped refugee policy in the 1950s and 1960s were strongly influenced by the ideological battles of the Cold War and the desire to encourage movement from East to West of "escapees" from Communist rule. Tuitt comments that refugees of this period were largely "of an elite class able to perform a relatively sophisticated ambassadorial role on behalf of the host state." (16) They were mainly adult males of professional standing--technocrats, scientists, and military men judged suitable for resettlement in states of North America and...

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