Space and time: missing pieces in the urban refugee crisis response

Published on 5 November 2018

Emma Soye

MA Development Studies

Dolf J.H. te Lintelo

Research Fellow and Cities Cluster Leader

More than half of the world’s 21 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced people (IDPs) are estimated to live in urban areas, while displacement resulting from conflict is now estimated to last around 26 years on average – hence the term ‘urban protracted displacement’. With this in mind, the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit called for crisis responses to not only focus on refugee camps but to work within local contexts, often within cities.

The recent Humanitarian Learning Centre Operational Practice Paper ‘Vulnerabilities in Urban Protracted Displacement: Exploring the Roles of Space and Time’ argues that current approaches, such as displacement profiling and area-based approaches, can be strengthened by understanding the complex ways that cities and towns interact with the vulnerabilities of refugees and hosts. The paper argues that humanitarian and government responses should take into account the importance of ‘space and time’ to navigate the challenges that regularly arise through urban protracted displacement.

Vulnerabilities of hosts and refugees in urban spaces

The majority of forced displacement occurs within conflict- and disaster-affected countries and their neighbouring countries. The Syrian conflict, for example, has displaced more than 6 million people within the country, while over 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. This means that displaced groups are often hosted in societies with similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and experiences.

However, the dislocation of refugees from physical, social, economic, and other forms of capital makes them particularly vulnerable. Yet the rapid arrival of newcomers in cities may also deepen exposure to risk and increase vulnerabilities for the host population, by adding to existing pressures on poorly functioning infrastructures and services, and lowering wages, as we have seen with the Syrian refugee crisis in urban Lebanon.

Taking account of living conditions for the urban poor and refugees

Within cities, the urban poor and displaced groups often share the same living conditions, such as in informal settlements and Palestinian ‘camps’ in Lebanon. Inhabitants of informal settlements are exposed to numerous environmental risks, including substandard housing, inadequate sanitation and hazardous electrical wiring. This signals the need for humanitarian actors to advocate with local authorities to ensure these groups obtain adequate protection and access to basic services.

Yet, not all displaced groups live in these highly concentrated and overcrowded areas. They may also disperse in attempts to reduce their vulnerability, such as urban IDPs in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Turkey, who opt for ‘invisibility’ for security reasons and for fear of harassment, detention, or eviction.

Area-based approaches (ABAs) are now an important mode of response to urban crises, whereby humanitarian and development interventions target an urban area, rather than a particular sector (such as water, health, or food security) or group (such as refugees, IDPs, or hosts). While ABAs offer a potentially equitable approach by covering vulnerable groups in close proximity, it remains important to also engage more dispersed groups.

Honing in on distinct functional uses of urban space, such as the public, work, and home space can provide additional insights to a city-level lens on vulnerability. For example, since host governments are often reluctant to allow refugees access to formal jobs, many work in the informal sector, lacking social security provisions and not covered by protective labour regulations.

Understanding ‘time’ and an unpredictable future

The initial shock of displacement creates extreme uncertainty about the present, and, as protracted displacement endures, shifts to a huge sense of unpredictability about the future, which is compounded by expectations of temporariness on behalf of individuals, donors, and governments.

Protracted displacement has important ‘time’ features. Time and its passing relate to everyday city life and economy, environmental conditions, electoral processes, institutional practices, and people’s individual and social lives. Temporal patterns take the shape of annual, seasonal, or diurnal cycles, which influence vulnerabilities in distinct ways. However, humanitarian and development responses to (protracted) displacement often do not take explicit notice of these patterns.

Economic activity in sectors important to displaced groups, such as agriculture, construction, or tourism, often have significant seasonal features which influence livelihood related vulnerabilities. For instance, several Lebanese municipalities close their towns to Syrian refugee workers during the non-tourist season. This means it can be very challenging for refugees to engage and participate in life and culture without a connection to urban livelihood patterns.

Day-time patterns can also be observed in urban contexts, such as in the provision of water, or in the use of public transport. In inner-city areas of Beirut, social tensions between refugee and host communities are most notable at the end of the day, when refugee workers return en masse from their shifts.

The night is often associated with crime and a time where women and children are much more vulnerable. Highly vulnerable ‘undocumented groups’, such as Karen refugees employed in Thai farms, work at night to evade labour inspectors.

Night-time curfews imposed on Syrian refugees in a swathe of Lebanese municipalities affect access to work and health services, not to mention opportunities to socialise and relax outside of the home. These issues are often left off humanitarian and development radars, for reasons as simple as staff adhering to daytime working hours.

Delivering on the ‘localisation agenda’

Different risks and vulnerabilities emerge when cities are considered as complex and dynamic systems and when urban protracted displacement is examined through a spatial and temporal lens. For example, a temporal lens emphasises the importance of night‐time economies and mobilities for urban refugee lives and livelihoods.

This way of looking at urban vulnerability can highlight areas that might be otherwise missed and ultimately help humanitarian and development organisations deliver on the ‘localisation agenda’. In settings of enduring displacement, humanitarian agencies must coordinate and combine efforts to support vulnerable groups’ immediate needs with advocacy directed towards national and city governments for longer-term investments in cities.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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