Of the millions of displaced people worldwide, a growing number are seeking protection in “cities of the south” where they receive little direct assistance or support. In such sites, displaced people’s abilities to feed, house, and clothe themselves are central to protecting themselves and reducing their dependence on humanitarian aid. In the absence of direct assistance or as a complement to limited aid, displaced people like other newly urbanized migrants must rely on informal or social resources to meet their immediate requirements and further their broader ambitions.

Building on original quantitative and qualitative fieldwork in three refugee hosting cities – Nairobi, Gaziantep, and Peshawar—this study funded by PRM explores the role of social networks in furthering or hampering displaced persons’ ability to achieve self-reliance. Experiences are diverse, but several general findings emerge: (1) Group membership is remarkably low; (2) Social networks are an invaluable asset for many but are either unavailable or a hindrance for others; (3) The in-group networks that initially offer protection become less effective in the long-term; and (4) Economic security is closely depending on people’s ability to forge connections beyond co-nationals.


  • Ascertain how the relative strength of social network ties contributes to the self-reliance and the socio-economic well-being of urban refugees;
  • Explore specific ways in which social networks within the refugees’ host country or country or origin affect refugees’ access to social capital and, if they do, what types of social networks have positive or negative effects on self-reliance; and
  • Conduct a literature review of existing studies on the importance of social capital and social networks in urban refugee settings, as well as the economic impact of refugees on their host country.


  • Formal associations through the social groups to which refugees belong are not deeply embedded in host communities, leading to low rates of participation among refugee communities;
  • Informal social networks are far more significant in refugee access to employment and self-reliance; and
  • Economic resilience amongst refugees is strongly correlated with connections outside one’s immediate ethnic or national group.


  • Humanitarian interventions must enable self-reliance through expanded social networks and other mechanisms. To do this, they should:
    • Start with providing the basic things necessary to survive and to escape abject poverty;
    • Ensure that the provision of basic needs is oriented at helping urban refugees over a threshold preventing them from gradually expanding other capabilities;
    • Institute a second — much longer — phase involving monitoring, evaluation, and an expansion or specialization of protection activities to address specific challenges and continue expanding the capabilities of refugees and host populations;
  • Effective humanitarian interventions must begin from a nuanced understanding of the local, social, and institutional environment that considers the varied abilities of people based on their legal status, age, gender, and ethnicity or nationality, and should:
    • Enhance efforts to ensure displaced people have de facto rights to work and residential mobility;
    • Offer strategic support for refugee associations while promoting “out-group” solidarities;
    • Enhance opportunities for residential mobility; and
    • Enhance language acquisition.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future