The hidden story of urban refugees

The post below is a guest post from a fine person who is a friend of mine. Sonia Ben Ali,, Co-founder and Executive Director of the international NGO, Urban Refugees. It’s a pretty fledgeling organisation with a remarkably important mission. Lateral Economics is a sponsor and I’m kicking myself for not having tried to ‘leverage’ that sponsorship as we say these days by saying that I’d match Troppodillian’s contributions dollar for dollar. 

So I’m taking it on the chin. I’ll match any donation Troppodillians make up to an additional US$1,000. Just let me know in comments below how much you’ve given (this has proven spillover benefits making you feel good and leaving others powerless not to emulate your generosity.)  Just go to this website, click “contribute now” and Bob’s your uncle. We both get a little bit poorer and, by the alchemy of gains through trade between the luxuriating and the desperate, our welfare goes down by a lot less than some urban refugees welfare will rise. Indeed, there are those who think that your contribution might have you ending the day with higher welfare than otherwise. #WTNTL?

The story of Anilo, urban refugee

Anilo is Somali. She fled her country in 2010 to avoid persecution and eventually settled in Nairobi, Kenya, to find safety and dignity. All she found there was more discrimination and extreme poverty. Anilo has no access to health or education. She lives in a slum, is regularly arrested by the police as her refugee status is not recognized by the authorities. Before arriving in Nairobi, Anilo stopped for some time in a humanitarian refugee camp, but she quickly escaped from it because the security conditions were poor, the camp was overcrowded and dirty, she did not have any kind of future prospect there and she was fully dependent on humanitarian aid, which she could not stand as a young woman. Making her way to the city was thus the most logical thing she could do, even though this led to further difficulties. She would at least get a sense of normality.

Most refugees do not live in camps, but in cities

Anilo is just one among many millions of refugees, not in camps but living what life they can within cities in developing countries (in Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America). Yet we hear next to none of this when the refugee crisis is portrayed in Western media. There, the attention continues to be focused both on developed countries (Europe, USA, Australia…), where only a 14% of the world’s refugees live, and on refugee camps in developing countries, where only a third of the refugees live.

In fact at present around 58% of the world’s refugees live in urban areas. The Syrian crisis is no exception: in Jordan, 84% of Syrian refugees live in cities, outside the United Nations-run camps. This figure rises to 90% in the case of Turkey. The reasons for this phenomenon are easy to understand: beyond being unhealthy and poorly secured, the camps offer no prospect of a return to normality.

The High Commissioner for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has issued a policy on Alternatives to Camps in 2014, thereby acknowledging that the camp model is outdated and does not match the needs and realities of these lives in exile. Yet refugee camps are still the default model when it comes to managing refugee crisis. Just have a look at the recent EU – Turkey plan, which conditions the relocation of Syrian refugees to Europe … to their presence in the camps.

When the left behind come together

This focus on camps at the expense of cities has huge consequences for the relief effort. Many developing countries have not signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Unable to obtain legal status and no longer benefiting from humanitarian aid, millions of urban refugees live in unbearable situations. The fear of being arrested and detained is constant; they do not have the right to work, do not have access to education or health; they are then easy prey for local criminal networks.

This pushes urban refugees to form community organizations to address the lack of support from the international community. These organizations, either formal or informal, are found everywhere in developing countries. Managed by the refugees themselves, they try to improve the lives of their community members through activities such as education for children, language courses or psychological support. Yet their means are meager which greatly limits their potential.

Join the movement

URBAN REFUGEES believes in and invests in the potential of these refugee-led organizations. We believe in the powerful resilience and capacity of refugees to find solutions to their own problems in spite of scarce resources and visibility.

We have thus designed an incubation program, which specifically aims to strengthen the capacities of these refugee-led organizations. We provide them with a six-months intensive, on the ground-training program in areas such as governance, fundraising, communications, advocacy, outreach to the media or project management. The underlying idea is to help these refugee-led organizations find more funding for their activities, attract humanitarian assistance and media attention and make their voices heard at the international and regional levels. Our first pilot program will be in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a refugee organization.

With the growing presence of refugees in cities, it is high time for public policies, the media and the humanitarian system as a whole to make camps an exception, not the rule.

You can support URBAN REFUGEES to work in this direction at this link:

Sonia Ben Ali (click through to donate),, @UrbanRefugees

This entry was posted in Best From Elsewhere, Economics and public policy, Inequality. Bookmark the permalink.
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paul walter
paul walter
8 years ago

The one thing MSM will not cover for home audiences is the reality that places like Australia, the US, France Israel, Germany and so forth are anomolous to the reality of this world for most people, be it the millions of refugees in different bad circumstances, or billions of urban and rural poor mainly across the developing world.

We aren’t hard done by. To come into this world in western/ euro civilisation is winning the lottery before you were born. We must hope karma is not too severe and we too are sent back to where we belong.

john Walker
8 years ago

the link to urban refugees seems to not work . I googled it and have given them $50 US .
Peace be with you

Sonia Ben Ali
8 years ago

Thanks so much Nicholas for your support from all the URBAN REFUGEES team! We are thrilled to launch this first incubation programme for refugee-led organizations with the support of Lateral Economics.

The campaign will end in two days, you can visit this website if you would like to make a donation:

Your donations can make a change!