Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability

Simone Haysom


Little is known about how displaced people negotiate the urban environment, their relationships with host communities and governance institutions and their specific vulnerabilities as compared with other urban residents. This report collates the main findings of a two-year research project, which involved seven in-depth case studies – Nairobi, Kenya; Yei, South Sudan; Damascus, Syria; Amman, Jordan; Kabul, Afghanistan; the Gaza strip; and Peshawar, Pakistan. The challenges facing the displaced often derive from their environment, including a lack of urban development in informal areas, poor-quality services, scarce employment opportunities and poor transport. The findings also underscore how much larger the role of the host state itself will have to be in displacement responses.

Along with other urban residents, the displaced face threats from criminals or the police and have little access to justice. The urban poor often have little influence over how or whether their needs are addressed, and the displaced also often suffer from legal and social discrimination.

In several cities in these studies the refusal of municipal or central authorities to accept the long-term presence of displaced populations has hindered integration. It has also entrenched patterns of underinvestment in city infrastructure, compromising urban development itself. In addition:

  • Displaced populations will largely be joining the ranks of the urban poor and will more obviously – and with clearer political consequences of failure – be a responsibility of the host state. Yet in rapidly urbanising countries, needs are greater than resources, and even where there is money to invest corruption and vested interests often mean that the needs of the urban poor rarely feature as priorities.
  • Displaced populations are often viewed as an expense and as a security threat. Although fundamental, convincing host states to fulfil their existing responsibilities and take on new ones in regard to displaced populations is not going to be easy.
  • The international community could help ensure that the needs of people fleeing conflict and disaster who have settled in urban areas are addressed and could support the governments of cities and countries that accommodate large numbers of displaced people. Unfortunately, approaches for doing so are largely underdeveloped and the engagement of external assistance agencies with urban displacement is hesitant, inconsistent and often inappropriate.
  • Systematic marginalisation of certain populations also risks creating ghettos of frustrated people, posing obvious risks of civic conflict. On the other hand, displaced populations largely profess a commitment to making their lives in the city. The opportunities this presents for developing the skills and assets of displaced populations should be recognised.


Haysom, S. (2013). Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability. Final Report. ODI.