Urbanization and Urban Refugees

In the year 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population was living in urban areas. This shift is the result of both “pull” and “push” factors: on one hand, people are attracted to the economic resources, social mobility opportunities, and government services found in urban areas; on the other, migrants flock to cities due to social insecurity, environmental vulnerability, and a graduated shift away from rural farming as a basis for national economic productivity.

Over the next three decades, virtually all population growth is expected to take place in cities – a departure from previous years, when growth was spread more evenly between urban and rural areas.1 By 2030, the number of people living in towns and cities is set to swell to 5 billion. At the same time, these statistics mask the disproportionate impacts of urbanization on countries throughout the world: thirteen of the world’s nineteen largest “megacities” are now found in the Global South, and while urban growth in sub-Saharan Africa can be seen as roughly equivalent to the rates of 19th century cities of the West, this population increase is emerging in absence of a comparable level of economic growth.2

Cities have become more numerous, more populous, and denser. Increased population density brings forth health and environmental risks, and the overall growth often strains government resources for public services. The “push” factors that drive people out of rural areas – such as poverty, natural disaster, and conflict – compound the burden; with limited economic resources and social ties, the process of resettling vulnerable rural populations in urban areas is especially challenging. These conditions challenge even the most practiced humanitarian agencies, which historically have operated in rural areas to which their resources, strategies, and skills are more suited.

While it is impossible to generalize across urban areas, features commonly associated with cities include transient residents, unregulated infrastructure, and environmental hazards such as air pollution and contaminated water. While many migrants are attracted by the relative abundance of government services in urban areas, such services often turn out to be substandard in the poorest areas; community groups and non-profit organizations oftentimes have to fill gaps in basic access to clean water, healthcare, and quality education. In addition to the chronic issues posed by widespread poverty, vulnerability can be understood in terms of urban violence and environmental disaster.

Urban Vulnerability to Violence

While villages were historically founded as oases of peace and security, modern day case studies of American, Canadian, and Brazilian cities demonstrate that the uncontrolled growth of large urban areas correlates with increased crime rates. The link between urbanization and urban violence is corroborated by numerous empirical studies. There is no single theory to explain this relationship, however. The proposed explanations include:

  • The anonymity afforded by the size and density of large cities;
  • The opportunity for criminal gain due to the existent economic and social resources of the urban space;
  • The relatively low risk of being caught, especially in megacities where governance is stretched thin;
  • The types of urban social interactions that bring diverse groups into close contact with one another; and
  • The abundance of young and unemployed males.

Faced with the negative consequences of armed violence for urban residents, humanitarian agencies are beginning to engage with these issues. Their unique skills in conflict areas are well suited to the challenges of political and criminal urban violence. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are particularly active and draw from their existent expertise in armed conflict.

Humanitarian activities in the context of urban violence are conducted under the premise that “violence is violence”, and that the negative impacts on communities are worth more consideration than the motivations for the violence in the first place.4 However, such activities remain controversial; some critics argue, not only is funding for humanitarian action limited, but the expansion into tackling the impacts of urban violence could detract from the core purpose of humanitarian agencies.

Urban Vulnerability to Environmental Disasters

In certain ways, humanitarian responses to natural disasters are easier in cities than they are in rural areas as media, government institutions, services (e.g. electricity, water), and trained experts are more widely available in urban regions than they are in rural ones. However, cities possess unique characteristics that make them more vulnerable to natural disasters.

A large portion of urban vulnerability is due to a combination of population density and infrastructural degradation. Additionally, with ¾ of large cities located on the coast, many urban areas are at significant risk of flooding, tsunami and hurricane. Poor wetlands preservation exacerbates the danger of flooding, while the deforestation of hillsides heightens the likelihood of landslide in the event of earthquake. For many cities, this risk is pressing: more than half of large cities are located in areas with a high risk of earthquake, each with a population ranging from 2 - 15 million.5 Meanwhile, in populous areas with dense infrastructure, the “heat island effect” raises temperatures around the city and heightens the wind and rain intensity of storms.6 As more individuals move to cities, build their homes there, consume the available resources, and tax the capacities of state agencies, the vulnerability of the population to the catastrophic consequences of natural disasters is likely to increase.

The international community is active in the effort to improve community resiliency to natural disasters. The United Nations Habitat Program plays a particularly central role, conducting training sessions on risk reduction and pressing city and national governments to develop risk reduction strategies. Humanitarian agencies can prevent the worst impacts of disaster by providing technical guidance on urban planning practices, giving legal expertise to residents to navigate and codify land tenure, and building the capacity of local actors to respond in emergency.7

Urban Refugees

More than half of all refugees now live in urban areas, and the proportion is growing: between 2007 and 2009 alone, the percentage rose 8%.8 Refugee flows into urban areas introduce a number of unique consequences beyond the general challenges of urban life.

  • Introduction to already-stressed environments further strains limited water, infrastructure, land access, and health services.
  • Demographic changes in host cities can lead to major social tensions ranging from discrimination to outright violence.
  • Fragmentation of refugee social and familial structures into wide diaspora networks, cultural, and lingual differences makes full integration problematic.
  • Overcrowding and the sprawl of slums challenge a city’s efforts toward long-term urban planning.

Humanitarian organizations can ameliorate refugee experiences in urban areas by:

  • Providing legal expertise in registration and documentation so that refugees have access to government services and institutions, and advocate on their behalf to the governments.
  • Facilitating integration into the workplace. (In Yemen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) partnered with the Ministry of Technical and Vocational Training to include them in the government’s vocational training courses.)

Attempts to address refugee needs oftentimes blur the line between development and humanitarian work. However, humanitarian agencies’ familiarity with the drivers of refugee flows and the populations’ acute vulnerabilities, increases the necessity of close collaboration.

Challenges for Humanitarian Operators

The complexity and density of urban environments significantly alter the viability of certain shelter and sanitation strategies that might work well in rural, more sparsely populated areas. In situations of natural disaster, unclear land tenure policies in informal areas further complicate humanitarian agencies’ approaches to recovery.9 Humanitarian efforts in urban settings are hampered by scarce qualitative and quantitative information on refugee populations in a given area. Oftentimes, refugees are hesitant to identify themselves due to the fear that they would be sent to a refugee camp or deported. In practice, In addition to funding limitations, the inability to refugee communities accurately hinders the organizations’ effectiveness.

In addition to such technical challenges, the stronger presence of media and government institutions is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the two drive greater awareness of (and thus greater political will to respond to) the issues facing urban populations. On the other, stronger political influences may challenge humanitarian activities in cities, whereas in rural areas such activities could remain outside the scope of such pressure.

In order to reduce such challenges, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee proposes that the humanitarian field should prioritize six key goals as they become more familiar with urban issues more generally:

  • Improve multi-stakeholder partnerships;10
  • Build technical surge capacity and expertise;
  • Develop and adapt existent humanitarian tools to urban contexts;
  • Promote the protection of vulnerable urban populations [including refugees, internally-displaced people, and other undocumented individuals];
  • Strengthen livelihoods; and
  • Enhance preparedness among national and local authorities in urban areas.11

Emergencies in urban spaces are a growing issue for humanitarian operators. Agencies look now to prioritize practical and sustainable goals and encourage rigorous insight into the social dynamics, institutional relationships, infrastructural vulnerabilities, and chronic poverty-related issues of each city.



  1. Barney Cohen. "Urbanization in developing countries: Current trends, future projections, and key challenges for sustainability." Technology in Society, Vol. 28, 2006. Web.
  2. "State of the world’s cities: Trends in sub-Saharan Africa: Urbanization & metropolitanization." UN-Habitat. Report.
  3. 'Guns in the city: Urban landscapes of armed violence.' In Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City. Small Arms Survey, August 28, 2007. Web.
  4. For example, in 2010 the ICRC served to mediate conflict between rivaling gangs in Medellin, and supplemented their attempts to promote dialogue with health services for local residents and advisory for police forces. In Tegulcigapa, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has provided medical care to victims of violence and set up shelters for young homeless people.
  5. 'UN system task team on the post-2015 UN development agenda: Disaster risk and resilience.' UNISDR/WMO Paper, May 2012. Web.
  6. Jane Qiu. “Urbanization contributed to Beijing storms" Nature, July 31, 2012. Web
  7. Many aid organizations aim to improve resiliency by reaching out directly to the communities: as an example, the Red Cross and Crescent Societies have conducted education programs on hygiene and flood mitigation. Furthermore, and as demonstrated in the massive effort in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake, all types of institutions – including international organizations, non-governmental organizations and the military – will have to collaborate to deliver direct relief after a disaster.
  8. "Refugee protections and solutions in urban areas." UNHCR Presentation to the 3rd Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights, November 2010.
  9. 'IASC strategy: Meeting humanitarian challenges in urban areas.' Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2010.
  10. As noted in the IASC Strategy, stakeholders include “local governments, service agencies, line departments of national and provincial governments, urban councils, faith-based groups, private sector interests and community based organizations, police departments, health institutions and in cases of disasters, entities especially designated to address relief and reconstruction.” (“IASC Strategy.”)
  11. IASC Strategy.”

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