More than 60 percent of refugees worldwide are now estimated to live in urban areas, and increasingly humanitarian agencies are expanding their focus to become engaged with refugees and displaced persons living in cities and towns. Policy and operational shifts are underway, with emphasis on expanding access to protection, self-reliance and essential services among refugees who live in urban and non-camp locations.

Increased urbanization of forced displacement raises new opportunities and challenges in facilitating access to durable solutions, including the capacity and willingness of refugees to return to their countries of origin, and the prospect of increased returns to towns and cities rather than rural locations. With support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), CWS undertook this research project with the goal of identifying factors that are related with relative success of refugee return to urban areas. Specifically, CWS sought to explore relationships between two variables – (a) place of origin in home countries and (b) place of settlement in countries of asylum – with refugees’ capacity for successful return and reintegration into urban areas.

The project drew on both a review of relevant policy regarding voluntary repatriation and urban and non-camp refugees, and field research conducted in Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda. Data collection was focused in Gisenyi, Rwanda, a regional city of 106,000 inhabitants, and Bloléquin, Côte d’Ivoire, a town that is home to just over 30,000 persons. This served as an opportunity to examine return dynamics and urbanization in town and small city contexts, which may not receive the same attention from researchers nor humanitarian agencies as do large urban areas.


  • Identify key factors in refugee decision-making regarding return to urban areas, including differences related to socio-economic characteristics, flight experiences, family and social networks, and access to protection in countries of asylum;
  • Identify project design, implementation and/or monitoring and evaluation tools that could be applied to working with urban returnees, in the context of sustainable voluntary return processes; and;
  • Inform discussion of policy and operational practices related to voluntary return, based on the findings of the study.


  • Urbanization occurs at multiple stages throughout the forced displacement and returns processes;
  • Urban returnees who had lived in non-camp settings tended to be less reliant on external assistance, and to engage in a wider array of livelihoods activities while in exile, compared to camp-based returnees;
  • Non-camp settings still allow for refugees to access essential services, but not at the same rates as in camp settings;
  • Non-camp refugees are more likely to repatriate sooner and return ‘spontaneously’ to urban locations than their camp-based counterparts;
  • Perceptions of conditions in countries of origin are a key factor in voluntary returns to urban locations, although “push” factors still play a role;
  • Quality of housing may be a concern for urban returnees, even after permanent shelter is accessed;
  • Economic challenges may exist, even if employment rates are high, and may be greater for urban returnees who had fled from rural areas;
  • Subsistence agriculture remains part of household livelihood strategies in urban returns contexts;
  • Social networks are available to some, though not all, urban returnees (and could depend on whether returnees were originally from urban or rural locations);
  • Higher crime rates in large urban areas may negatively affect the safety and security of returnees;
  • Social ties with persons in countries of asylum are often maintained, though circular migration is not necessarily evident.


  • Anticipate increased urbanization of refugee returns:
    • Humanitarian organization policy frameworks should be updated to overcome biases favoring refugee returns to state of origin and biases against refugee urbanization;
    • Implementing partners should increase information collection in order to determine the living situations of displaced refugees pre-repatriation and the environments they intend to return to post-repatriation;
  • Explore new routes for refugee return from urban and non-camp areas:
    • Humanitarian organization policy frameworks should go beyond affirming the right of refugees in urban or non-camp areas to return, and explore options for enabling this in a manner that recognizes the specific characteristics and challenges of refugee life outside of camps;
    • Implementing partners should include engagement of non-camp refugees in intentions surveys, registration or verification exercises, or other activities that are undertaken in countries of asylum in anticipation of voluntary returns;
  • Promote repatriation through social linkages rather than rupture:
    • Humanitarian organizations should continue to ensure that refugees have access to information about conditions in countries of origin, including in town and city locations; and
    • Promote an interactive “reintegration orientation” prior to returning in order to assist prospective urban returnees in preparing appropriately.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future