Displacement, Migration, and Urbanization in the 21st Century

Over 79 million people are currently forcibly displaced within their own country or across international borders as a result of conflict or natural disaster. As Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explained in 2020, “resolving forced displacement is not only a moral or humanitarian imperative, but also deals with issues at the heart of the [Security] Council’s mandate to maintain international peace and security.”

Like human life in general, displacement has become a primarily urban phenomenon, though the data are still limited. Many people are attracted to cities because of what they offer, but others are escaping unbearable conditions elsewhere. While COVID-19 has undoubtedly tempered migration to cities, it was been estimated as recently as 2015 that over 3 million people move to cities every week, despite common national policies intended to dissuade movement to urban center.

Humanitarians have recognized the ever-growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in urban areas for decades. The magnitude of the Syrian crisis helped bring the urban component of the plight of refugees to the forefront of people’s minds. Since the beginning of that crisis, forced displacement to and from urban areas has only increased globally. Yet accurate numbers on urban displacement, particularly for IDPs, are still elusive; current reports place the fraction of IDPs found in urban areas at around two-thirds of the total number.

Displacement today is longer term and more urban than rural
Current hostilities in northern Ethiopia, referred to by the United Nations as a “full-scale humanitarian crisis,” portray the picture of displacement most often imagined. Tens of thousands have fled Tigray, and many of them are now located in refugee camps in Sudan and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands are internally displaced inside Ethiopia, many of them hosted by local communities. In scenarios like this, violence breaks out, people flee to escape the fighting, and fast-growing temporary camps sprout in nearby regions to accommodate the exodus. In a best-case scenario, a robust international response helps the displaced maintain a passable standard of living until the conflagration dies down and people can voluntarily return home in dignity and resume a semblance of their old lives. There is acute and deplorable suffering, but it is temporally contained.

More prevalent patterns of displacement have been in existence for a long time, however, and these differ in two important ways. First, rather than camps, many of those displaced—60 percent by some estimates—now end up in urban areas, where they can “live autonomously, make money and build a better future… [but they] may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest or detention, and can be forced to compete with the poorest local workers for the worst jobs.” To address this, recent urban humanitarian efforts increasingly include area-based approaches that include integrated multi-sectoral efforts to support those displaced and the host community’s poorest at the same time.

Second, we are seeing long-term, or protracted, displacement. Over three-quarters of refugees are displaced for more than five years and there are millions of refugees, including Somalis, Afghans, and Palestinians, who have maintained this status for decades or even generations. Some of them have even been re-displaced by more recent events. Some long-term, multi-decadal camps serving refugees and IDPs function as urban systems, just as formal municipalities do. They evolve much akin to the growth of a boom town, and many of the civic challenges are similar.

Cities hosting forcibly displaced populations and migrants enjoy advantages, often economic, but also may experience lower crime rates and other benefits. At the same time, displaced individuals often need large amounts of assistance and can strain already stressed urban social services, while laws restricting refugees’ access to work can hinder their ability to contribute to local economies. Often, the entrepreneurial spirit and new skills that migrants bring can provide a real benefit to hosting communities, but this may itself result in resentment.

Urban-focused strategies needed to maximize benefits, minimize risks
Helping displaced people who are dispersed among the permanent population or living for multiple generations without a permanent status is a very different challenge than assisting those temporarily clustered in a temporary camp. For example, children born after their families have been displaced may end up without any identity papers and thus be at risk of statelessness.

A lack of social or economic integration for migrants and the forcibly displaced, often relegated to ethnic enclaves within or on the edges of a city, can lead to resentment and fear on the part of long-term residents and to alienation and radicalization of some newer arrivals. In extreme cases this can lead to violent unrest by migrants, like that seen last year in Germany and France, but also to anti-immigrant sentiment in places like South Africa, Malaysia, Russia, and the United States.

Like urbanization more broadly, urban displacement and migration carry both opportunities and risks. How do we maximize the benefits while minimizing the security risks and societal strains? Some approaches have already been established as best practices:

Incorporate the displaced into the formal economy and work market to enhance their integration and reduce economic competition with long-term residents;
Adopt policies that enable and encourage entrepreneurship among the displaced;
Reduce grievances in the host population through effective integration and other means;
Ensure that national government and international bodies addressing both internal and cross-border displacement engage local authorities; and
For those compelled to leave their homes, make the nearest safe urban centers more inviting to settle in through thoughtful development and the establishment of good governance standards.
But other issues require further inquiry. For example, as climate-related migration increases in areas like Central America and more traditional unrest continues globally, how do we equitably encourage, both within and across borders, safe, sanctioned migration, ideally within country, and receptivity on the part of receiving communities? How do urban planners balance the needs of voluntary migrants that many cities seek for population and economic growth, with those of forcibly displaced persons who often relocate to the same cities?

To bring about a sustainable and equitable future, urban planners, humanitarians, and development actors must take into account both forced and voluntary population movements and long-term displacement. The urgency of addressing these questions will only grow. Climate change is anticipated to drive increasing rates of both forced displacement and migration. The process has already begun; estimates of likely climate migrants by the middle of this century range between 25 million and 1 billion, with the number 200 million cited most often. We see the impacts at the southern border of the United States and in the large numbers of those displaced in the Sahel. Many are forced to move as a result of a confluence of factors, including the impact of climate change on livelihoods and food security. According to World Bank simulations, many of those compelled to move by climate impacts will end up in cities. And while the current UNHCR’s Strategic Directions mention that refugees in urban settings already represent a majority of those under their care, never does the word “urban” come up where solutions are proposed. Promisingly, however, the more recent UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign “invites cities and local authorities all over the world who are working to promote inclusion, support refugees and bring communities together.”

Image: Pixabay

Source: New Security Beat : https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2021/07/displacement-migration-urbanizat...

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.