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Eveliina Lytinen reports back on a roundtable discussion about the exclusion of internally displaced persons from protection and assistance, during the recent International Association for the Study of Forced Migration conference in Uganda.

The Refugee Law Project (RLP) organised a roundtable entitled, ‘What about Us? The Exclusion of Urban Refugees & IDPs from Protection and Assistance’ during the 13 IASFM (International Association for the Study of Forced Migration) conference on Wednesday 6 July 2011. The roundtable, chaired by Dr Khoti Kamanga from Centre of the Study of Forced Migration, University of Dar es Salaam, roused an interesting discussion on the highly topical issue of urban forced migration, and attracted more than 50 conference participants.

The roundtable sought to address the following questions, among others: What mechanisms need to be in place for the recognition of urban internally displaces persons (IDPs) and refugees? Are the existing policies governing IDPs and refugees still appropriate instruments for dealing with displacement situations in the urban centres? Has the implementation of the 2009 United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas changed anything in practise? What would a durable solution to the increasing phenomenon of urban IDPs and refugees look like?

Mr Andrew Songa of the Refugee Consortium Kenya addressed the issue of developing Kenya’s IDP policy. Currently the Government of Kenya is considering an IDP policy, which has been drafted in particular because of the widespread post-election violence that took place in the country in 2007. Overall, he argued that in the context of pursuing a comprehensive legal framework and durable solutions for IDPs – both in rural and in urban areas – it is apparent that IDPs themselves need to be heard and partnered with at the every step of these processes. In order to ensure that IDPs were fully engaged in the policy-making process, the Refugee Consortium Kenya together with the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford undertook an innovative project seeking to share the concerns of IDPs from their own perspectives. This project sought to capture voices of IDPs in various displacement situations in Kenya, both in rural and in urban areas.

The director of the African Center for Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg, Dr Loren Landau, discussed the issue of urban refugees, mostly from the Sub-Saharan African viewpoint with a particular focus on South Africa. He argued that the phenomenon of urban refugees is not something new despite how the aid agencies and humanitarians frame the issue. However, urban refugees have long been invisible, and the ways in which urban refugees overcome this invisibility is an important policy issue. Dr Landau went on to argue that programmes for urban refugees should not create parallel structures in the cities, but they should address the needs of all urban poor living in various refugee-populated neighbourhoods. Thus, he emphasised that the scale of a neighbourhood is vital in urban refugee protection. Furthermore, in most cities it is difficult to distinguish forced migrants from voluntary migrants or other urban residents, and most of the new comers in urban environments face similar difficulties. ‘What I am basically arguing for is kind of self-assistance or self-protection. And there are a number of reasons for this. One is that trying to target refugees in particular risks doing them more harm than good,’ Landau says. This does not, however, mean that there is no role for the aid agencies or host governments in urban refugee protection. There is, for instance, a need for these institutional actors to advocate for refugees’ access to public services such as schools, health care and housing.

Mr Rocky Menya from the American Refugee Committee spoke with regards to the Ugandan internal displacement context. He argued that often IDPs do not plan to move to urban destinations, but it is rather by necessity that they flee further away from their homes and consequently some of them find themselves living in exile in a city. ‘How far you run depends how far they chase you or who is chasing you. Also with the IDPs how far you fled: some to the camps, some to the towns and some to Kampala,’ he added. He also suggested that the reality of urban IDPs in Uganda is hidden from the wider international community due to the fact that most of the attention has been focused on IDP settlements in Northern Uganda. The lack of formal recognition for urban IDPs in Uganda has impacted on where the majority of the relief has been targeted. Mr Menya, however, argued that the lack of recognition has also created some positive outcomes: Urban IDPs in Uganda have become more independent from the aid agencies than their counterparts in the settlements as they had to find creative means of sustaining themselves in urban settings. Furthermore, urban IDPs have in many instances rejected the IDP label. ‘How do we target them, but with a mind of building on their resilience, building on their self-esteem, building on their capacity to gain control of their own lives,’ Menya concludes.

The short opening statements stimulated a lively discussion among the speakers and the audience, which included displaced people, policy-makers, academics and NGO personnel, among others. The majority of the refugee participants argued that urban refugees have been left out from formal protection and assistance mechanisms. For instance, one of the refugee participants asked: ‘How do you think that the government or agencies dealing with refugees could help urban refugees or IDPs to take care of themselves, and… why do you think that the protection and assistance of urban refugees and IDPs are excluded?’ The presenters seemed, however, to agree that suggesting that urban forced migrants are entirely excluded from protection and assistance is to some extend misleading. Furthermore, they argued that there is need to redefine what protection means in an urban context. According to Dr Landau, protection in an urban context refers to the fact that forced migrants are able to live as others in urban areas. ‘What do we really mean by protection in an urban area? And beyond the legal status, I think that we have to say that it means to live basically as well as the people that they are living amongst, and having the same opportunities,’ Landau asks. He stated that to certain extent urban refugees are forgotten, but so are the other urban poor.

In addition, it was discussed why IDPs and refugees end up in cities and what are the main pull factors for urban displacement. With regards to this, it was pointed out from the audience that at least in the Ugandan context there are two categories of urban refugees. First, there are those who choose to reside in cities and they are given that opportunity as long as they can be self-sufficient. Second, there are asylum seekers who are compelled to be in urban centres. Many of them would rather be in the settlements but they cannot be located there before they have received the refugee status. The issue of how small or medium size cities can deal with urban forced migration compared to capital cities was also raised. According to Dr. Landau life for refugees may sometimes be easier in smaller towns and cities because of more flexibility. It has also been shown that in South Africa refugees were better off in some of the poorest cites, but did not do well in the wealthier cities of the country. Mr Songa also confirmed that in Kenya the trend of refugee and IDP movement is increasingly towards the smaller cities. However, he suggested that there may be specific protection concerns in smaller towns as the law enforcement is often less practical in this context.

The speakers all agreed that in particular contexts there seems to be an apparent tension between the idea of respecting urban forced migrants´ choices of staying invisible and the requirement to conduct needs assessments and profiling exercises in order to be able to provide protection and assistance for them. It was also reminded that some IDPs and refugees may be so well integrated in urban areas that they may not identify themselves as forced migrants. Thus, it was suggested that different agencies and authorities should respect refugees’ and IDPs’ self-identification.

Furthermore, it was raised that even if Uganda and other countries have adopted the 2009 UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, in which ‘all sentences make sense’, the major challenge is how to implement it. According to the representatives from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and various community-based refugee organisations there seems to be a wide gap in the implementation of that policy.

At the end of the session Mr Menya directed the discussion towards the issue of expectations. He reminded that urban life can be difficult for everyone, and thus refugees and IDPs must control their expectations. He also stated that sometimes urban forced migrants forget their own potential and resources as they are merely seeking to be assisted by different organisations and by the government. In his concluding remarks, Dr Landau reminded that solutions for urban refugees must be locally appropriate, and he advocated for the inclusive approach of targeting not only refugees and IDPs but also other migrants and urban poor in the efforts to improve the lives of all urban residents’. This does not, however, mean that urban forced migrants should not be targeted when it comes to particular displacement-specific concerns that other urban residents are not struggling with.


* Eveliina Lytinen is a DPhil candidate, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford/Research Associate, Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Uganda.
* This article forms part of the 'IASFM13: Governing migration' special issue, produced in collaboration with the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) and the Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Kampala.
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