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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Protecting and Assisting Urban Refugees

May 3, 2013


PRM Programs for Urban Refugees Promote:

  • Access to local resources, including housing, health care, livelihoods and education;
  • Partnerships between humanitarian actors and municipal authorities, local health officials, school boards, private businesses and financial institutions;
  • Protection through self-reliance; and
  • Strategies to ensure refugees’ psychological well being.

PRM Programs also Prevent and Respond to Exploitation and Gender-based Violence.

Shifting Locations – Shifting Strategies

The majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and refugees are no exception to this trend. According to UNHCR estimates, over half of all persons of concern reside in cities, up from just 13 percent in 2001. This significant shift over the past decade creates new vulnerabilities and protection challenges for the humanitarian community.

Most humanitarian relief organizations, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have roots in camp-based responses. Historically, humanitarian assistance has not focused on urban settings.

Often viewed as a subset of urban poor, urban refugees can be easily overlooked. Yet, urban refugees have unique needs and vulnerabilities, including the threat of arrest and detention, harassment, exploitation, discrimination, inadequate housing, as well as vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence and human trafficking.

PRM Response – Adapting to the New Urban Paradigm

Central to PRM’s core principles on responding to urban refugees is the notion that refugee protection should be provided irrespective of location and the international community should address needs where they exist, rather than where it is easiest to address them. Learn More»

PRM is expanding its engagement in urban areas in terms of humanitarian diplomacy and providing modest material assistance targeted at the most vulnerable urban refugees. PRM’s response focuses on ensuring the protection of refugees’ legal rights, including freedom of movement, the right to work and to an education, and the right to access courts, healthcare, and public services. A key goal is to help urban refugees become self-reliant and have access to livelihoods, even if only through the informal economy.

Promoting the rights and well-being of urban refugees must not disadvantage host populations, whose tolerance of refugees is critical to their protection and successful integration. Accordingly, fostering good relations with local communities helps ensure that refugees can fully benefit from protection and assistance programs. A recent UNHCR survey identified the importance of community networks in establishing self-reliance. Whenever possible, it is also important to coordinate with local stakeholders and development actors to find creative ways to address the overlapping needs of refugees and the local community.

Examples of PRM Programs

Successful PRM programming for urban refugees runs the gamut from the provision of life-sustaining necessities to ongoing material and psycho-social support for refugees in protracted situations. Examples of such programs include the following:

PRM supports the NGO Heshima-Kenya’s holistic initiative to provide unaccompanied girls and young refugee women with basic education, life skills, and tailoring training intended to increase their emotional growth and self-sufficiency. These girls and young women are survivors of gender-based violence such as rape, Female Genital Mutilation, and early marriage. Some of these urban refugees have joined together to form an income generating project that has attracted more and more global attention for its products.

The Refugee Law Project in Uganda has helped provide 1,200 urban refugee survivors of gender-based violence with legal and medical aid. An additional 15,000 individuals have directly benefited from this program.

For Afghan refugees in Iran, UNHCR has fostered a successful partnership with the Government of Iran to provide primary health care to refugees, nearly all of whom live in urban settings. UNHCR has also successfully advocated for Afghan refugee access to education in Iran

In Lebanon, PRM is supporting a project to expand access to quality mental health and psychosocial support services to urban Syrian refugees, while in Yemen, PRM is funding a vocational training project, helping refugees enter the labor market in urban areas.

PRM continues to monitor and evaluate its programs and search for innovative strategies to better protect and assist urban refugees. In July 2012, PRM’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Operations traveled to Uganda and Ethiopia to examine urban refugee programs in the field. Report» PRM also supports research to improve protection and assistance for refugees in urban areas. In FY 2012, for example, PRM funded research to develop strategies for addressing the unique needs of refugee youth in urban areas and research to improve refugee-host relations. PRM also funded the development of a profiling methodology for humanitarian partners to better identify refugees in urban areas. A number of NGOs have used this profiling tool in Kenya, Cameroon, Pakistan, and Syria. A further pilot study is testing this tool in Quito, Ecuador, and New Deli, India.

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