Read caption A family building their house in Al-Hamidiya informal settlement in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: NRC/Hussein Mujbil

Urban displacement

The people seeking refuge in cities are the forgotten face of the displaced.

More than half of the world's displaced people live in urban areas. Although images of refugee camps in rural areas form many people's idea of life for the displaced, this is not the full picture.

People displaced by conflict, natural hazards, or some combination of the two often move to urban centres. Here, they seek better economic opportunities, anonymity, and safety.

However, they face many challenges upon arrival. Many are unable, because of lack of money or civil documents, to find proper housing. And so they live in slums, have less access to work, education, health and sanitation services, and are vulnerable to more violence.

They have become the forgotten face of the displaced.

Addressing the issue

NRC believes that their long-term displacement must be addressed as a political, development, and economic challenge, instead of a humanitarian intervention.

Many displaced people in urban areas place pressure on the already strained resources in their host communities. However, their arrival can also stimulate economic growth by contributing labour and consumers to the market. Their presence can be turned into a positive influence for the community.

To address the situation of the urban displaced, we have programmes specifically aimed at urban areas to break the cycle of displacement.

Urban displacement projects


Under Ethiopian law, refugees have the option of moving outside of refugee camps, and many do. However, they do not have the right to work in Ethiopia. We run a programme in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to meet the needs of Eritrean refugees. With cash transfers, people can now pay their rent and went from eating one to three meals a day. We also help people start their own businesses, as this is most likely the only way for refugees to work in Ethiopia.


In Lebanon, no formal refugee camps are provided for Syrian refugees, forcing nearly all of them to find private housing in cities. We found that the majority live below housing standards, making them at risk for disease, and few have lease agreements, making them more likely to be evicted. We led a programme in Lebanon to reduce the threat of eviction for Syrian refugees by giving them information, counselling, and legal assistance on renter's rights.