Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Washington, DC
August 28, 2012


A joint UNHCR-PRM mission visited Kampala and Addis Ababa between 15 and 21 July 2012 to review urban refugee issues in Uganda and Ethiopia. The mission team consisted of Janet Lim, Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees (Operations); Ambassador David Robinson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, US State Department; Jeff Crisp, Head, Policy Development and Evaluation Service, UNHCR; and Wendy Henning, Attaché, Refugee and Migration Affairs, US Mission, Geneva.

The mission had three primary objectives:

  • to familiarize team members with refugee issues and UNHCR programs in two very different urban contexts
  • to review the implementation of UNHCR’s policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas in Uganda and Ethiopia; and,
  • to advocate on behalf of the urban refugee policy with governments and potential partners.

To meet these objectives, the team met with UNHCR and US Embassy staff, senior government officials, representatives of UN and international organizations, UNHCR implementing partners, individuals from the private sector and civil society, as well as members of the urban refugee population. In addition, the mission conducted site visits to facilities such as schools, health and community centres, and convened multi-stakeholder round tables in both Kampala and Addis Ababa, each of them bringing together some 50 people for a period of three hours.

Observations on the mission

The mission proved to be an extremely useful exercise in a number of ways. It helped to consolidate the already very close working relationship between UNHCR and PRM, enabled senior members of both organizations to familiarize themselves with the realities of implementing the urban policy in two very different contexts and provided an opportunity to demonstrate the importance which both UNHCR and PRM place on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas.

While the mission was too short and too formal to enable the team to undertake a detailed examination of the urban refugee situation in Uganda and Ethiopia, visits with humanitarian partners, local authorities, social service providers and refugees themselves illuminated areas of progress and priorities for future efforts. A round table discussion in each city provided an extremely useful opportunity for UNHCR and PRM to engage with its key partners and, perhaps more significantly, with potential partners such as development organizations and the private sector.

Findings on the implementation of the urban refugee policy

The team made a number of general observations with respect to the implementation of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy and the associated set of principles that have been elaborated by PRM.

First, UNHCR’s policy remains a highly relevant one at the global level, anticipating the right challenges and proposing a sensible range of solutions to those challenges, and has been widely welcomed by UNHCR staff and partners. Effective implementation is highly contingent on the local context, and particularly on the refugee policy of the host state, requiring a case-by-case approach that targets interventions appropriately. Even where host government policy is generous toward refugees, they are often unable to exercise their rights simply because the local community is unaware of the national legal framework. As articulated by both UNHCR and PRM policies, a primary objective of urban engagement will be to exercise UNHCR and PRM mandates as humanitarian advocates and diplomats in order to ensure recognition of status and legal rights consistent with international law and address practical barriers to the enjoyment of those rights. While the specific objectives of such advocacy will be determined by each local context, the overarching goal of expanding and/or preserving protection space will apply to all operations.

Second, innovative approaches, and especially new partnerships with local authorities, NGOs, UN agencies and the private sector, will be required to implement the urban refugee policy. Particular attention should be given to the objective of promoting livelihoods and self-reliance in urban contexts, thereby enhancing the capacity and fulfilling the potential of refugees. While UNHCR’s urban policy provides the appropriate framework for effective urban response, its successful implementation requires greater effort by UNHCR to communicate the policy, underscore its importance and translate it operationally at the local level. Much of the new approach envisioned by the urban policy has yet to be fully adopted on the ground in Kampala and Addis Ababa. The new approach requires UNHCR to: see its role in urban settings as less of a service provider than a facilitator and advocate to support refugee self-sufficiency; to proactively reach out to vulnerable urban refugees and assess their individual needs using innovative approaches; to partner with and support local service providers; and to forge new partnerships with development actors, local authorities and the private sector. UNHCR staff would benefit from more training to develop the different skill sets required by urban environments and more tools that would ease the burden on offices while ensuring that they are fully able to undertake the new approach envisioned by the policy.

Third, with emergency response often occurring in the same countries hosting protracted urban populations, the issue of competing priorities will remain a challenge. UNHCR and PRM should neither prioritize nor neglect urban refugees but rather treat them fundamentally as part of their caseload and devise context-specific outreach and protection plans to ensure their basic needs are met. UNHCR and PRM would benefit from a better understanding of what resources are required in urban and camp settings and a clearer sense of how funding allocations are, or should be, determined. While resource issues will remain a challenge, protection space in urban areas can be meaningfully expanded through vigorous advocacy and innovative approaches described above.

Fourth, while the urban refugee policy relates to both protection and solutions, the mission to Uganda and Ethiopia demonstrated that many urban refugees, like refugees living in camps, have very little prospect of resolving their plight, given the continued conflicts in their countries of origin, which rules out voluntary repatriation, the reluctance of host states to consider the de jure solution of local integration by means of naturalization, and the very limited number of resettlement places available to them. In this context, UNHCR and its partners should promote the de facto social and economic integration of refugees, placing primary emphasis on the promotion of livelihoods and self-reliance, coupled with ensuring access to the labor market as well as public services such as education and health.

Urban refugees in Uganda

Since 2006, Uganda has pursued a liberal policy in relation to urban refugees, allowing them to take up residence in Kampala and other cities should they wish to do so, rather than living in one of the country’s rural refugee settlements. At least 40,000 refugees have chosen this option, most of them originating from the Great Lakes region, Somalia and Sudan. While many appear to have attained a reasonable degree of social and economic integration in Uganda, local integration in the form of citizenship is generally not available to them.

Meetings with urban refugees revealed that those who move into Kampala usually come from an urban background themselves. Despite the fact that they receive little or no direct assistance, their skills and experience are more suited to the city than the settlements, where their lack of agricultural expertise make it difficult for them to support themselves by means of cultivation.

While refugees encounter a variety of different challenges in Kampala, the mission gained the impression that most of them are similar to those experienced by other members of the urban poor. Price inflation and accommodation are particular problems. Refugees are often obliged to live in large groups in order to save costs, but are then at risk of being evicted for having too many people under one roof or for failing to pay their rent. Living on the move in this way disrupts the education and economic activities of the refugees. According to some informants, considerable numbers of refugees resort to negative coping mechanisms in order to make ends meet. However, while refugees share many of the same economic challenges as their urban poor hosts, they encounter additional challenges and protection concerns particular to their situation/status as refugees. Language skills, or lack of, pose the greatest challenge to accessing livelihoods and social services.

While officially refugees in Kampala are able to access public health facilities, transport is expensive and the quality and timeliness of the public services available leaves much to be desired. Furthermore, refugees do not have the individual or social safety nets needed to absorb the cost of accidents and illness. Private health facilities are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of urban refugees.

Refugees are allowed to attend public schools free of charge but many have trouble covering related costs such as school uniforms and materials. Sponsorship opportunities for secondary and university education are very limited.

While refugees in Kampala are affected by the crime that characterizes urban areas in virtually every developing country, in general they do not appear to be harassed by the police and security services. There is evidence, however, that individual refugees from neighboring countries are at risk of being targeted by government agents from their own countries.

Kampala - Visits with Stakeholders

Born Again Refugee Association

While in Kampala the delegation met with the Born Again Refugee Association (BARA), a dynamic group of DRCongolese refugees that have arrived in Kampala since 2003. The BARA demonstrated some of the ways refugees can work together to improve their lot while also highlighting the immense challenges they face in the urban environment. For example, BARA women established a traditional revolving grant scheme which requires each member to contribute a sum of money each month and which allows one person each month to make use of the collected savings. This arrangement provides members with relatively large amounts of start-up capital and to insure against sudden shocks to the household budget, such as education and medical expenses. BARA has also established a special fund to help new refugee arrivals in the city and refers particularly vulnerable refugees to UNHCR’s principal implementing partner for appropriate support. The community’s youth group has formed a lively drama troop that strives to raise awareness within the refugee and host community of critical issues such as SGBV and HIV/AIDS, as well as conflict resolution.

The BARA also shared a list of concerns and recommendations. The first was for UNHCR to provide durable solutions for them, especially those who have been living in Uganda for more than a decade. They lamented the fact that they had no immediate prospect of resolving their plight and expressed the opinion that resettlement to a third country would enable them to benefit from higher education. Access to decent healthcare was a second concern. BARA leaders explained that there is not a health centre in the area where they live compounded by a lack of ambulances or other forms of transport. BARA leadership also pointed out the need for more employment support in the form of training, job placement, and start-up loans (which they are unable to access at Ugandan banks). It was also suggested that a pre-primary school would reduce the pressures experienced by refugee mothers and assist them to undertake income-generating activities. And finally, they also suggested that UNHCR senior staff should visit the refugees more frequently in their communities, that UNHCR should provide allowances for refugee community volunteers, and that the number of counsellors employed by InterAid should be increased. UNHCR and Interaid are well aware of the demands for more interaction but have limited human and financial resources to increase support. Use of mobile technology has, to some degree improved access to personnel.


The Mission spoke extensively with Interaid staff and visited its multi-purpose facility in Kampala. A national NGO, InterAid is UNHCR’s primary partner in Kampala, although other NGOs, both local and international, are becoming involved with the city’s growing population of urban refugees. InterAid opened in 1995 and initially provided direct assistance to some 3,000 urban refugees. With the dramatic increase in urban refugee numbers, however, InterAid has adopted a much more community-based approach, developing partnerships with other stakeholders in the areas of health, education, legal support and counselling for victims of violence. The organization hosts monthly stakeholder meetings which allow refugees to be referred from one agency to another.

InterAid has adjusted its programs on the basis of UNHCR’s 2011 Participatory Assessment exercise, which revealed that urban refugees have very limited access to public services and that their situation is adversely affected by the negative attitude that some members of the public, civil servants and politicians exhibit towards refugees. In this context, it is important to note that InterAid increasingly emphasizes not only the rights of refugees, but also their obligations. According to the InterAid Director, overcoming a sense of entitlement is also a constant challenge for the organization in its relations with urban refugees. She pointed out that InterAid and its partners will help refugees to access public services, but they are not in a position to improve the quality of those services. That is a task that must be undertaken by the authorities, its development partners and the private sector.

InterAid’s capacity appears to be increasingly stretched by the growing size and geographical dispersal of Kampala’s urban refugee population, not to mention the density of the city’s traffic. Working through a network of refugee community volunteers has provided a partial solution, but they are unpaid and their commitment varies. InterAid salaries are reportedly not competitive which results in high staff turnover. In a somewhat acrimonious meeting with a group of 30 refugees in the InterAid compound, a number expressed their dissatisfaction with the agency, alleging that some of its personnel were corrupt and that its services were inadequate. UNHCR is aware of complaints but attributes the problems more to a lack of capacity than actual corruption.

Old Kampala School

By way of contrast, the mission team undertook an extremely positive visit to the Old Kampala Primary School, where the highly motivated Head Teacher and his staff have made a tremendous effort to welcome and integrate refugee children and to show that their presence in the school is also in the interest of the local population.

Around 400 of the 900 pupils in Old Kampala are now from refugee families, an outcome that has been facilitated by UNHCR, which has provided the school with desks, books, latrines and Lego. UNHCR and InterAid have also worked with the school administrators to sensitize parents and teachers and to mobilize their support for the admission and integration of refugee children.

While the physical condition of the school is poor, and while the mission team was unable to assess the quality of the education that it provides, Old Kampala appears to have achieved the Head Teacher’s ambition of creating “a mini-United Nations” in Uganda’s capital city. Particularly noteworthy was the extent to which the refugee and Ugandan children have been able to retain their national and cultural identity, while at the same time demonstrating a real sense of community and solidarity.

Urban refugees in Ethiopia

The urban refugee scenario in Ethiopia is very different from that in Uganda, underlining the fact that the implementation of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy will have to be tailored to specific contexts. While the country is currently host to some 350,000 refugees, less than 4,000 of this number live in Addis Ababa and other urban areas. Refugees in Ethiopia are officially accommodated in camps, are generally required to remain there and are returned to their camp if they are apprehended outside its confines. There are only two exceptions to this rule.

Refugees of any nationality are allowed to take up residence in an urban area if they can demonstrate that they have pressing medical, protection or humanitarian (e.g. family unity) needs. Just over 2,000 of Ethiopia’s refugees have been given such permission. The Government and UNHCR jointly determine eligibility for the urban refugee program and the forms of assistance received by its beneficiaries. Urban refugees over the age of 18 are issued ID cards that are valid for three years and are linked by barcode to UNHCR’s ProGres database.

Under the government’s ‘out of camp’ policy, Eritrean refugees are permitted to move to an urban area if they have lived in a camp for at least six months, if they have a sponsor who can assume responsibility for covering their expenses, and if they do not have a criminal record. Around 1,500 Eritreans have been accorded this privilege. Out of camp Eritreans are granted access to public school and health facilities, although many express dissatisfaction with the quality and cost of such services, as well as the logistical difficulties. Eritrean refugees are technically able to reclaim family bank balances and assets that were held before the large-scale deportations of 1988, although the extent to which this has happened remains unclear. Officially, ‘out of camp’ refugees are only allowed to work in the informal sector. But there is some confusion with respect to the meaning of this restriction. Irrespective of this issue, many of the Eritreans complain that they are subject to discrimination in the labour market, making it difficult for them to find a job or to earn a living wage.

In addition to the two groups of urban refugees described above, there are an estimated 180,000-200,000 Somalis residing in Addis Ababa in an area predictably known as ‘Little Mogadishu’. A brief drive through the neighborhood indicated a strong sense of cultural identity and a high level of informal sector activity. The exact origins and composition of this group remain unclear, but it appears to include both ethnic Somali Ethiopians and Somalis from Somalia. With respect to those originating from Somalia, their presence is evidently tolerated by the authorities, is unrecognized in UNHCR’s refugee statistics and untouched by the organization’s urban refugee program.

Kampala - Visits with Stakeholders

Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA)

The Ethiopian government’s refugee agency, ARRA, is heavily engaged in all aspects of the country’s refugee situation, including urban refugees. Part of the National Intelligence and Security Service, ARRA was established in 1989 to address a mass influx of Somali refugees in the Jijiga area. It now manages the arrival of refugees through more than 20 entry points and, together with UNHCR, is responsible for the care of over 350,000 refugees from Somalia, Eritrean and Sudan, who are accommodated in 18 camps.

ARRA took the opportunity of its meeting with the mission team to raise a number of issues, many of them relating to the large camp-based refugee population. With respect to the much smaller number of urban refugees, ARRA’s primary concern was an increase in funding to diversify and increase the assistance package (described below) provided to beneficiaries of the urban refugee program, as well as greater support for skills training and income generating programs amongst the out of camp Eritreans. ARRA representatives indicated that it might be open to the idea of allowing larger numbers of refugees to leave the camps if they had the skills needed to participate in the informal sector.

When asked why so few of the Eritrean refugees have applied for out of camp status, ARRA replied that it is because urban living conditions are so difficult, prices are rising rapidly, work and affordable housing is scarce and because out of camp refugees do not receive direct forms of assistance. As a result, they can quickly become a strain on the resources of their hosts. It was also suggested that some refugee prefer to remain in camp because they believe that it will enhance their prospects of resettlement. In this context, ARRA underlined the fact that Ethiopia’s refugee policy does not provide for the possibility of local integration and that donor states, in the spirit of responsibility-sharing, have an obligation to provide additional resettlement places.

While acknowledging the many difficulties of life for the urban poor in Addis Ababa, ARRA consistently asserted that refugees could be trained for low and medium-skill jobs in areas such as construction and motor mechanics. While the mission team agreed on the need for UNHCR to examine this issue further and possibly to establish a modest pilot project, it remains the case that Addis Ababa is affected by large-scale inward migration, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and that refugees will continue to experience discrimination in the labour market. In these circumstances, their job prospects would appear to be gloomy, even if they have gained some form of vocational qualification.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development Commission (DICAC)

One of UNHCR and ARRA’s main partners in Addis Ababa, DICAC is affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the government, but is administered as an independent organization. It was established more than 40 years ago with strong support from World Council of Churches. As of June 2012, DICAC had 2,332 urban refugees on its books, a significant increase from the 500 that it had in 2006. According to DICAC, most of the refugees who have moved from a camp to Addis Ababa and other urban areas in recent months have been allowed to do so on medical grounds.

DICAC’s overarching responsibility is care and support for refugees in the urban program. This includes the distribution of a monthly subsistence allowance and annual clothing allowance. DICAC also covers some medical bills, provides an ambulance service, has a 24 hour refugee helpline and provides specialized counselling and support for refugees affected by SGBV and HIV/AIDs. In addition, DICAC helps to negotiate school access for refugee children. There are currently some 700 refugee children in school in Addis Ababa (a 50/50 boy to girl ratio at the primary level, and a 60/40 ratio at secondary level.) This is not an easy task as there appears to be some resistance from school officials with respect to refugee admissions. At the same time, DICAC indicated that it has difficulty in meeting the refugees’ high expectations with respect to healthcare, many of them preferring to attend the more efficient and expensive private clinics and expecting DICAC to pay their bills.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)

JRS is also active UNHCR partner with urban refugees in Addis Ababa. The agency runs a refugee community center that offers daycare, cultural and sports activities, a library, internet access, vocational skills training and psychosocial support. All urban refugees, including the out of camp Eritreans, can take advantage of these facilities. JRS currently has 112 students in its skills training program, about the same as last year when it was initiated. Skills are selected on the basis of how the refugees perceive their own needs, rather than on an assessment of market needs. It is unclear if and how refugees are making use of their new skills, although refugees who have been resettled reportedly send back very positive feedback.

Out of camp Eritreans

The mission team met with a group of 10 male and female Eritrean refugees who are part of the out of camp program. The group included two current university students, a former midwife, a former teacher, and former official in the Eritrean Ministry of Health. About half of them spoke some English and most cleared came from urban backgrounds.

A spokesperson for the group listed the principal challenges Eritrean refugees in Addis face. The first was a lack of skills needed to get employment which results in them becoming a burden on their host family. Even refugees with skills and qualifications find it difficult or impossible to find employment, either because of official restrictions or because of discrimination against Eritreans. A shortage of money makes it difficult to access health care and to pay school fees and related educational costs. House rents and other prices are rising rapidly, a situation that leads to overcrowding and negative coping mechanisms. Out of camp refugees do not believe they have a fair chance of resettlement thus some return to a camp with the hope of improving resettlement prospects.

Other urban refugees

The team also met with a group of urban refugee representatives of other nationalities including individuals from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Yemen. Though they receive a subsistence allowance and some support accessing services, these refugees raised similar issues to those presented by the out of camp Eritreans, especially with respect to the cost of living, employment, health and education. In addition, refugees drew attention to the problems experienced by those in mixed marriages (including nationality issues for their children), as well as the particular vulnerability of refugee widows and young mothers. One refugee asked UNHCR to establish a safe house for such women, apparently unaware of the fact that DICAC was about to open such a shelter (it has since opened). Another refugee explained that when they are the victims of crimes that are unable to get police reports and thus have no access to justice.

Meeting with UNHCR Branch Office Addis Ababa Staff

In a brief wrap-up meeting, UNHCR staff pointed out that dealing with an urban refugee population is far more demanding than managing a refugee camp. Costs and investment in terms of time and human resources is significantly higher per capita in the urban context than in the camps. UNHCR attributes this to the dispersed nature of the caseload as well as its particular medical and protection needs that require more regular follow up and individual assessment than a typical camp-based population.

David Robinson concluded the meeting by observing that the number of urban refugees in Ethiopia is much smaller than that in Uganda, and while this made the situation more manageable, it also made it more difficult to get the urban refugee issue onto the national agenda. At the same time, he welcomed the fact that stakeholders such as ILO and UNICEF had expressed their willingness to engage with UNHCR and the urban refugee issue. Operational interventions to assist refugees, he pointed out, must be coupled with advocacy and awareness-raising.

David Robinson and Janet Lim agreed that it would now be important to identify a modest but concrete training and employment project that would have a real impact on the lives of refugees and demonstrate the good will of both PRM and UNHCR. Janet Lim accepted that the Ethiopian authorities would be unlikely to give refugees the formal right to work; meaning that UNHCR and its partners would have to work in a zone of ambiguity. At the same time, she welcomed the flexibility that the government had demonstrated by introducing the out of camp policy for Eritreans, and suggested that the authorities should be encouraged to extend that policy to other refugee groups.

Roundtable Discussions with Stakeholders.

The mission team hosted a round table discussion with stakeholders in Kampala and Addis. The objectives of these were: (a) to inform a range of key stakeholders of UNHCR's new approach to the issue of urban refugees, (b) to solicit their support for the implementation of the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, and (c) to encourage an interactive discussion amongst those stakeholders so as to identify gaps in the implementation of the policy and the action required to fill those gaps. Specific points for discussion included refugee registration and documentation, community outreach, livelihoods and self-reliance, access to services, and material needs and assistance. The roundtable format proved valuable in understanding the dynamic among partners and potential partners, the concerns of host communities and authorities. It also illuminated possibilities for programming and advocacy that would help further implementation of the urban refugee policy in both contexts.

Both the Kampala and Addis discussions touched on the challenge of tracking, and thus supporting, widely dispersed urban refugees. With respect to reception and registration, UNHCR acknowledged the need to expand its facilities and make its procedures more efficient. UNHCR also reported on its efforts to make use of innovative methods, such as telephone hotlines and mobile registration. In Kampala, UNHCR’s main partner, InterAid is using a system of appointing refugee representatives and establishing mobile phone chains to improve communication and cut down transport time and cost (for refugees and staff). In Addis, refugee associations based on nationality have emerged and serve as points of contact for UNHCR and authorities. DICAC also operates an emergency phone line.

The need for livelihoods opportunities and advocacy on behalf of urban refugees’ rights were salient themes of both discussions. In Kampala, participants noted that many of the issues that are relevant to urban refugees apply equally to nationals as evidenced by the youth bulge, and the associated level of unemployment experienced by young people in Kampala. The same is true in Addis though officials claim there are low-skill job opportunities in some sectors. The need to develop refugee skills, and perhaps more importantly match them with job opportunities emerged in both discussions. There is a clear need for better market assessment and marketing, to ensure the viability and sustainability of refugee enterprises. Related to this, participants brainstormed about possibilities for partnership with and expansion of existing training programs and savings and loan schemes – usually considered development programs – into which refugees could be incorporated. They also discussed the need to explore employment and/or skills training opportunities with the private sector perhaps starting with small pilot projects.

In both countries, roundtable participants pondered the challenge of increasing urban refugee access to services, namely education and health, when the cost of living has risen steadily in recent years. Local NGO partners in both cities explained that public hospitals crowded and waiting times are long. InterAid explained refugees’ preference for relatively expensive private healthcare both because medical treatment is better but also because they are treated better. In Addis, DICAC often takes refugees to more dependable but more expensive private hospitals. In Addis, many refugees prefer private schools where pupils are taught in English rather than Amharic. In Kampala, participants touched on the high fees associated with schooling (uniforms etc) and the negative attitudes of school leaders towards refugees in some communities. A UNICEF representative in Addis underlined the fact that in terms of educational and other services, Ethiopia has a very low all-round baseline (in both urban and rural areas). She suggested that the role of UNHCR should be to advocate on behalf of refugees, constantly asking development actors, “have you thought about refugees when planning your programs and projects?”

Participants were candid about the challenges of advocating on behalf of refugees. An official in Uganda pointed out that while the Office of the Prime Minister (which is responsible for refugee affairs in Uganda) is well versed in refugee rights and needs, other government departments and service providers, are naturally preoccupied with the situation of Ugandan citizens. A representative of the Kampala City Council unapologetically pointed out that residents of the city had several reasons to be concerned by the refugees’ presence: they create security problems, they are sometimes armed, they do not cooperate with community leaders, defecate in public places, have poor hygiene habits and live in overcrowded housing. Whether true or not, these preconceptions provided important insight into the way that urban refugees can be perceived. The roundtable discussions confirmed what visits to the school and health center illuminated. More must be done so that urban refugees are perceived as an asset and an opportunity if they are to be accepted in communities and provided with the services they need.

The roundtable discussions also reaffirmed the urban refugee policy’s approach not to create parallel systems but to provide additional support to existing structures. Delegation leaders, Lima and Robinson reiterated in both for a the need to reinforce existing vocational training and urban development programs so that they can incorporate urban refugees and promote positive interactions with local communities. Interventions must aim to create an enabling environment in which urban refugees have the opportunity to establish sustainable livelihoods and to become self-reliant. As a participant from the International Labor Organization explained in Addis, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There is a great deal of research and literature available with respect to urban livelihoods, employment and development, that stakeholders could take advantage of for the benefit of urban refugees. .

Implementing the 2009 Urban Refugee Policy - Recommendations and Next Steps

Institutional Support

• Developing and providing tools: UNHCR (with PRM support) can lessen the burden on individual field operations at the HQ level by developing universal tools (e.g., IT tools, profiling data) centrally that can be easily used at the local level, saving country offices from reinventing the wheel.

• Training: As with the urban e-learning program, PRM can support UNHCR to develop and deploy training materials to ensure staff are well-informed and well-equipped to carry out the policy. Once the urban e-learning program is completed, it should be widely disseminated, for use by all staff working in urban areas.

Humanitarian Advocacy/Diplomacy:

• Expanding rights and access to services: Operational interventions to assist refugees must be coupled with strong advocacy and awareness-raising. UNHCR and PRM can more proactively build humanitarian advocacy/diplomacy regarding urban refugees into its discussions with host governments, as well as with other relevant actors, in order to expand the rights and well-being of this population. Such advocacy should continue to prioritize legal rights and access to services. The U.S. and other donor governments can enlist their Embassies more effectively in this effort.

• Awareness-raising: Key to expanding access to services is awareness-raising within the community about who refugees are and what the local law grants them, coupled with efforts to overcome discrimination and other obstacles to accessing services and employment. This will require advocacy at the very local level.

• Outreach: As the urban policy notes, in urban areas refugees often have difficulty learning about and accessing UNHCR offices for a variety of reasons. Identify innovative approaches for targeting assistance to those refugees who are most vulnerable. As indicated above, this can be facilitated by technology (e.g. resource websites, use of cell phones and hotlines) and other tools (e.g., refugee profiling, mobile registration).


• Establishing new partnerships: Consistent with the urban policy and drawing on expressed interest in partnership (particularly by ILO and UNICEF), identify and reach out to potential partners, including local NGOs, local authorities, legal aid clinics, development actors, other IOs and the local community. Reach beyond the traditional caregivers to bring together wide range of local stakeholders for regular discussion and coordination.

• Working at the local level: As visits to schools and clinics in each city demonstrated, it is critical that local service administrators are aware of refugee rights to such services and are seen as partners in realizing these rights. This requires clear communication and close coordination between UNHCR staff and the respective authorities overseeing basic services.

• Steps to ease community tensions: Ensure that refugees are aware of their responsibilities, as well as rights, to foster good relations with the local community. Ensure that urban development, employment, poverty-reduction and infrastructural projects are undertaken on a community-wide basis, bringing benefits to local populations and refugees alike. In urban areas, host communities should comprise close to half of all beneficiaries.

• Development opportunities: UNHCR should advocate with development actors to factor refugees into planning and programming.

Livelihoods and Self-Sufficiency:

• Small scale interventions aimed at supporting refugee self-sufficiency: Identify training opportunities for under-subscribed low and medium-skill jobs in areas such as construction and motor mechanics. Training should be linked to detailed analysis of the labor market and an active job placement program. UNHCR should examine this issue further and establish a modest pilot project, while also exercising its advocacy role to address discrimination in the labor market.

• Reinforce existing vocational training and urban development programs so they can incorporate urban refugees and promote positive interactions with local communities.

• Humanitarian actors can capitalize on existing research and literature available with respect to urban livelihoods, employment and development, as well as on existing or potential new partners, such as ILO. Partnering with the private sector is essential to maximizing employment opportunities and ultimate self-sufficiency.

• UNHCR could also partner with organizations such as ILO to secure the right of urban refugees to work, to register businesses, to earn a decent wage and to be protected from exploitation.


  • Undertake focused analysis on the resources, both human and material, required in both urban and camp settings, and attempt to develop a working methodology for allocating resources appropriately. While there will be no single “formula” for resource allocation, some evidence base and general principles/rationale should guide this decision-making.