Tents or tenants – what we know about the impact of displacement on local housing markets

Dear JDC Newsletter subscriber,

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, the needs of the displaced are something that governments in Europe and beyond continue to grapple with. Currently, there are over seven million refugees from Ukraine living across Europe. Poland hosts more than any other country, with somewhere between 1.3 – 2 million Ukrainians residing there. While these displaced people have many needs, one of the most fundamental is housing. Without a stable home, the vulnerable become even more so.

Yet this fundamental need has been neglected in so many refugee crises where the go-to solution used to be rows of, often dilapidated, tents. Syrians were housed in tents when they first arrived in Za’atari camp in 2012. Now, they live in containers with access to water, sanitation and schools with libraries and computer rooms. In Uganda, refugees are given a plot of land which allows them to build semi-permanent structures, and in the United Kingdom, where there is an acute shortage of housing, the government offers residents a monthly allowance to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in their homes.

Clearly, there are plenty of housing solutions for forcibly displaced people. Frequently, they are absorbed into existing housing markets. But as these populations often increase rapidly over short periods of time, as we saw in Europe earlier this year, they put housing markets under strain. As Semih Tumen points out in the latest JDC Quarterly Digest , ‘the sudden and often massive nature of refugee inflows, combined with the fact that housing supply is mostly unresponsive in the short-term, has the potential to affect housing prices and generate substantial changes in housing preferences, neighborhood quality/amenities, mobility patterns of hosts, and attitudes toward refugees in receiving areas.’

To help us understand the topic and identify solutions, the Digest includes summaries of twelve high-quality studies on the topic. In addition, around one hundred data sets on the UNHCR microdata library contain data on housing – another great resource.

Data can help us determine the impact of hosting refugees, which is something that UNHCR and the World Bank have been working on for several years. The “The Global Cost of Inclusive Refugee Education” report published in 2021, for example, provided a methodology for assessing the costs of education for refugees. Some of the elements included in current Digest can help frame a similar exercise with respect to housing and shelter.

If displaced people are to live decent and productive lives, they need proper housing. In his book, Secure Enough:  Rethinking Housing, Land and Property Rights, Jamal Browne (UNHCR’s Global Lead on Housing, Land and Property) studies flood-affected communities and makes findings that could be applied also to forcibly displaced populations. He states that “the most ‘secure’ forms of tenure are associated with the lowest levels of vulnerability, less secure arrangements – such as … tenancies and occupancies – are associated with the highest levels of vulnerability”.

What we need now is more research on countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Uganda, which host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. And the research we need is about how to provide stable housing for forcibly displaced people to improve their protection and well-being.

We hope you find the Digest and Literature Review helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any comments, questions or suggestions, to either myself or to Domenico Tabasso ([email protected])

Yours sincerely,

Björn Gillsäter

Head of the World Bank – UNHCR Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement

[email protected]