By Jessica Wolff

After graduating from DUSP’s Master of City Planning program in June 2018, Jessica Wolff worked for the International Rescue Committee to lead a research project and co-author a major international report titled Urban Refuge: How Cities Are Building Inclusive Communities. The report highlights the work of local governments in 23 cities to support refugees and internally displaced persons arriving in cities. To learn more, read the full report here or contact Jessica at jswolff73@gmail.com

Global forced displacement is at a historic high. In 2017, 68.5 million people were displaced from their homes, with 58 percent of refugees and at least 80 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in cities.[1] To national governments, displaced populations can be an abstraction, a complex political enigma to address with increasingly diffused policy responses. To cities, displaced populations are new urban residents who rely on city services, contribute new skills to the workforce, and bring new cultures to the community. As historic rates of forced displacement converge with increasing urbanization rates worldwide, local governments are at the forefront of responding to displacement. A new report from the International Rescue Committee, titled Urban Refuge: How Cities Are Building Inclusive Community, documents how cities around the world are showing unparalleled initiative and leadership, even with limited capacity and amidst challenging political contexts. It serves as a call to action for the private sector and international humanitarian actors to build on the efforts of cities in response to urban displacement and acknowledge local governments as equal partners.

Figure 1: Urban Refuge Around the World. Cities interviewed for the report.

Figure 1: Urban Refuge Around the World. Cities interviewed for the report.

The report highlights the efforts of 23 city governments worldwide, including case studies from cities at the forefront of current displacement, resettlement cities, and cities recovering from recent conflict. The comparative approach enabled a macro analysis to distinguish similarities and differences in cities’ experiences, policy responses and ongoing challenges to best support the displaced.

Urbanization and displacement converge in cities, requiring intentional responses and strategic planning on behalf of local governments in order to ensure that all city residents, including marginalized and displaced populations, have reliable access to services. Of the cities included in this report, 11 are in countries with projected urban growth rates higher than the global average (2%) for the next five years and they host an average of 404,800 displaced persons; this is ten times more than the average displaced population in the 12 other cities, which are in countries with projected urban growth rates below 2%.[2] Given these overlapping trends, cities are demonstrating leadership and foresight as they begin to incorporate migration into long-term strategic planning.

As stated in the report, “The reality of urban displacement requires a different approach to urban humanitarian response – one that puts cities at the center based not on their capacity, but on their willingness to host displaced residents and their legitimacy to oversee the delivery of services within their jurisdiction.” While some of the cities included in the report have rich migration histories, many are experiencing new patterns of migration. The latter need to develop a capacity and understanding of how to incorporate migration and the unique vulnerabilities of displaced populations into city planning policies. Of the 23 cities included in this report, 13 have a strategic plan to support displaced persons and address migration; however, only 5 of those cities have a dedicated budget for this work.

Comparatively, while humanitarian response organizations are attuned to the unique vulnerabilities of displaced populations, they are primarily built around refugee camp service delivery models which are ill-suited for urban displacement. Humanitarian organizations are beginning to learn how to work within the jurisdiction of a city government and should continue to align programming with existing city goals. As displacement becomes increasingly urban, partnership with local governments, and ensuring that humanitarian programming also works towards existing strategic and development goals, is critical.

Figure 2: Inclusive City Planning Diagram

Figure 2: Inclusive City Planning Diagram

While all cities included in this report expressed their willingness to support displaced populations, they also highlighted barriers that limit their capacity and scope. The following diagram shows the top request from each city, demonstrating that access to financial resources, greater representation at national and international levels and technical resources and capacity building are primary supports needed to expand city policies for displaced populations.

Figure 3: Top Requests from Cities.

Figure 3: Top Requests from Cities.

There is an opportunity for cities, the humanitarian community and the private sector to leverage their comparative strengths towards inclusive city planning, which the International Rescue Committee defines as strategic planning to ensure that plans, policies and programs explicitly include the needs and perspectives of displaced and marginalized residents. As cities are already taking the lead, humanitarian organizations and the private sector should consider cities as equal partners in urban humanitarian response. Doing so would increase overall efficacy, reach and sustainability.

To learn more about the case studies, as well as inclusive urban planning policy recommendations for cities, the private sector and humanitarian organizations, read more at Urban Refuge: How Cities Are Building Inclusive Communities.


[1] UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017. 2018. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/5b27be547.pdf. Accessed 7 September 2018. ODI (2016). 10 Things to Know about Refugees and Displacement. Available at: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/11168.pdf. Accessed 03 October 2018.

[2] United Nations Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2018). Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. Available at: https://population.un.org/wup/. Accessed 2 October 2018.