Today, half of the world’s population lives in urban settings. By 2050, it is estimated that up to three quarters will live in a city with 90% of this growth taking place in cities of lower-income countries often at risk of fragility. In line with these urbanisation trends, internal displacement has become increasingly urban. Significant efforts are being made to adapt humanitarian response accordingly, however many challenges still remain.
With an event moderated by Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, ICRC launched its latest report on urban displacement “Displaced in cities; Experiencing and responding to urban internal displacement outside camps”. Specific issues associated with the reality of urban displacement were discussed by a high-level panel composed by Ms. Karla Cueva, Honduras Secretary of State for human rights, Mr. Audu Avinla Kadiri, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations in Geneva, ICRC’s President Peter Maurer, and JIPS Coordinator, Natalia Baal.
Throughout the discussion, the importance of relying on data instead of common assumptions to shape more effective and context-informed responses to urban internal displacement was strongly reaffirmed.
As explained by Peter Maurer, humanitarian action has often been guided by a “prejudice” directing efforts and responses towards supporting people in conflict zones, in remote crisis settings, in camps, and so on. It is only in recent years that important efforts have been initiated to develop better urban responses, yet the typical humanitarian response is still inadequate for IDPs living outside camps. Unverified assumptions – such as displaced people in urban settings face the same problems as the urban poor, – often form the basis of programmatic decision making and therefore significantly limit the effectiveness of humanitarian action in meeting IDPs’ needs.
In order to properly address the specific challenges associated with urban displacement, it is first of all crucial to acknowledge that better responses must originate from better data and analysis instead of unverified assumptions – this point was articulated by all panellists at the event. Urban profiling and similar methodologies are needed to properly contextualise responses which can otherwise easily lead to failure in addressing the situation. As clearly stated by Mr. Audu Avinla Kadiri, Representative of Nigeria to the UN, during the event, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as what worked in Somali cities, for example, will not necessarily work in Nigerian cities.
Some urban-specific challenges directly impact our ability to collect and analyse data in urban contexts. Among the others:
The need for better methodologies and innovative practices to address and mitigate these challenges, together with the necessity to build on local knowledge and expertise, is therefore clear. Firstly, methods must be context-informed, nuanced and technically advanced to find and identify IDPs (e.g. mapping techniques), to know which questions to ask and to capture useful analysis. Secondly, approaches must build on local knowledge, expertise and networks. This ultimately makes a big difference in our ability to identify affected areas and access hard-to-reach populations, as the experience with the ongoing profiling exercise in Honduras shows.
Speaking from different perspectives, the panellists highlighted a number of important issues to improve humanitarian response in urban areas including, as Peter Maurer articulated, putting people at the centre of response even if this means revealing institutional limitations. An emphasis on facilitating a local, not only national response was highlighted by the Honduran minister whilst the importance of avoiding fragmented approaches and incorporating host families and communities into response plans was described by the Nigerian representative.
The whole panel strongly affirmed, that any effort to develop better responses to urban internal displacement necessarily begins with a strong commitment from relevant actors to work together to improve data, or more specifically the usefulness of analysis. This primarily means investing time and resources in a holistic analysis that connects people to the places they are settled in. In order to address the complexities of urban displacement, we need to look at IDPs’ living conditions, their socio-economic situation, protection issues and so on, but also try to understand how the cities hosting them work, the services they offer, the infrastructure and existing employment opportunities and so on, as these can also significantly impact –and be impacted by- IDPs and magnify their vulnerabilities. A good example of this is the ongoing Urban Analysis Network for Syria project, where an inter-sectorial and area-based approach was adopted, bringing together displacement data with data on urban conditions in Syrian cities.
Furthermore, by enabling a comparative analysis between different population groups residing in similar areas, profiling proved extremely useful in situations of urban displacement. Being able to identify vulnerabilities specific to different population groups and those connected more to specific geographic areas, provides analysis that can easily be transformed into response plan for local authorities. This was showcased by the work undertaken in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Within data processes, collaboration is also crucial in order to secure ownership and increase impact. Experience shows that results benefit from a variety of expertise and can also more easily remain relevant to a broader set of stakeholders when collaboration has been nurtured. Working closely with local and municipal authorities is particularly important in urban contexts, however, these stakeholders are often underfunded, have limited technical capacity and different data needs from humanitarian and development partners. As highlighted by the Nigerian and Honduran representatives, supporting national and local authorities is then necessary to ensure they can play a leading role in shaping and conducting a profiling exercise, and subsequently use the resulting data to inform policies and action. This has proven particularly critical in sensitive contexts such as Honduras, where for a long time the primary challenge has been the lack of an official State recognition of the displacement crisis within the country.
Finally, it is important to stress that this type of analysis, able to dig deeper into the trends and peculiarities of urban displacement situations, is also possible and useful in dynamic and rapidly changing circumstances.
As highlighted by Peter Maurer, the discourse around solutions is often a highly political (and politicised) debate, and return to the place of origin is often seen as the preferable solution for IDPs. Although in many cases evidence points in a different direction, it is often assumed that IDPs want to return home at the earliest occasion. Once again, this approach fails to assess IDPs plans and intentions for the future, and does not consider the full spectrum of durable solutions. As argued by Natalia Baal, data and analysis can be more strategically used to support solutions even when it comes to more sensitive issues around local integration. With return not always either feasible or preferred, it is important for local integration to remain an option on the table, especially in urban contexts. Data combining the intentions of IDPs with analysis of the opportunities and obstacles to achieving local integration within cities can provide a strong basis for advocacy.
Of course, data are also needed to evaluate return, as the simple movement of returning to the place of origin cannot be considered a durable solution per se, but needs to be followed by a successful reintegration process. Data systems can therefore help to better understand the sustainability of the chosen solution through a vulnerability analysis, among other things. It is worth repeating that durable solutions are a process rather than an event, with everything this entails including complications from a data perspective. In order to deal with this, the recent inter-agency project “Informing progress towards durable solutions” (led by the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs and including many UN agencies and organisations) developed a standard set of indicators and an analysis guide, aimed to help governments and humanitarian and development practitioners conduct durable solutions analysis and measure progress towards their achievement over time.
 Read “Conceptual challenges and practical solutions in situations of internal displacement” (page 39) for more on this topic.