Governments and international institutions have been slow to recognise, accept and address the shift of refugees to cities. UNHCR's report on this issue is to be commended, as it calls attention to an urgent concern with global implications. It is also a significant and positive step away from the agency's previous grudging acceptance of urban refugee realities.
Two demographic shifts that are transforming today's world help explain how the policy of sequestering refugees in rural camps was bound to be stop-gap and inappropriate. First, today's population is the youngest in human history. Nearly a quarter of the world's population is aged between 12 and 24, 85 per cent of whom live in developing countries – where most refugees reside. Second, most of humanity now lives in cities, and the numbers are growing.
At the intersection of these two trends is youth. Most refugees are from countries with strikingly young populations. War-affected cities usually mushroom in size. Naturally enough, young refugees are pouring into urban areas. Cities offer young people the chance to reinvent themselves and connect with the broader world.
They are also places of economic opportunity, a particularly important feature for male youth and adult men. It is difficult to gain recognition as a man, in many cultures, if you do not have some sort of income. Since paid work is difficult or illegal in camps, refugee men, particularly young men, seek work in cities regardless of the dangers.
And it is dangerous. Refugees generally enter cities that are already overcrowded and teem with destitute people who lack access to basic services. Urban refugees compete for jobs against citizens there. Some refugees become so desperate that they will work for much less than their citizen competitors. Taken together, this presents a potentially explosive humanitarian and security problem.
Camps will continue to be relevant for some refugees. But refugees in cities are now an irresistible, unavoidable reality. In the face of these sizeable challenges, field research suggests a means of survival for urban refugees: the best way to protect yourself is to act as if you are a model citizen. That essentially means hiding your refugee identity without breaking laws. Energetically accepting urban refugees therefore opens the door for them to contribute positively to the cities they live in.
The author is Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, and author of 'Fear in Bongoland: Burundi Refugees in Urban Tanzania'