Displaced in Cities: Experiencing and Responding to Urban Internal Displacement Outside Camps

ICRC, August 2018



This report examines the experiences of IDPs and host communities in cities and towns, and how well the current humanitarian response is aligned with people’s needs and expectations. The report is based on field research in Mosul in Iraq, Baidoa in Somalia, Maiduguri in Nigeria, and San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Key findings include:

  • Internal displacement is increasingly urban. IDPs flee to urban areas in search of security, services, markets, livelihoods opportunities, social networks, and assistance from relatives and friends. In cases of targeted violence, cities and towns offer the prospect of anonymity. There are also widespread negative perceptions of living conditions in camps; people avoid camps to maintain their freedom of movement, keep their animals, avoid authorities managing camps etc. In some cases there are no camps, or people lack the social (clan) connections to access informal camps. Choices are not static and IDPs move in and out of camps (e.g. move into a camp after failing to live independently in the city).
  • Most IDPs receive limited support and struggle to meet their basic needs. IDPs often end up living in slums or informal settlements, on the periphery of cities or in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they lack security of tenure and adequate services. IDPs struggle to meet basic needs (food and water, shelter, education, health care), frequently resort to harmful survival strategies (e.g. sending children to work or beg, trading sexual favors or resorting to transactional marriages), and experience acute feelings of dislocation and indignity. Efforts to regain autonomy are often hampered by social discrimination, the political and legal system, and security situation (e.g. insecurity in San Pedro Sula limits freedom of movement to seek employment and access services, undermines psychological well-being, and may force people to move repeatedly).
  • Compared to other urban poor, IDPs have specific vulnerabilities/needs associated with experiences of violence, family separation, loss of assets and income, lack of official documentation, and lack of familiarity with their new environment; they often lack capital to start a new business or the social networks to access livelihood opportunities, and they may not have skills suitable for the urban environment.
  • Host communities often perceive IDPs as a burden when displacement becomes protracted and when assistance from governments or humanitarian organizations is inadequate. Displacement exacerbates pre-existing problems of employment and markets, land and housing, infrastructure, waste management and other public services. While displacement in urban areas is overwhelmingly portrayed as a burden, it can also create opportunities for host communities and cities.
  • The humanitarian response to internal displacement outside of camps tends to be ad hoc and insufficient. Humanitarian responses tend to focus on IDPs in camps, despite the significant numbers of IDPs settling out of camps in urban settings. This may reflect the mistaken view that IDPs in urban areas are better off than those in camps because they benefit from the assistance of host families and host communities. Humanitarian responses in urban areas are often “belated and incomplete” focused on emergency needs, even in situations of protracted displacement. They also tend to be “blanket” programs (e.g. provision of urban infrastructure and services) rather than support to individuals/households, reflecting the erroneous assumption that IDPs are difficult to identify in urban settings.

The report outlines several recommendations for improving the humanitarian response to urban displacement, including:

  • Humanitarian responses should be informed by the experiences of IDPs. Humanitarian programming should address the holistic needs of IDPs, the many consequences that flow from displacement, and the social, political and legal systems that facilitate or prevent integration.
  • Humanitarian organizations must do a better job of reaching out to IDPs and helping them to safely access humanitarian assistance. The performance of humanitarian organizations should be assessed against their ability to include populations affected at every stage of the response.
  • Long-term considerations must also be part of the humanitarian response. The humanitarian response should aim to simultaneously meet emergency needs, while at the same time helping people regain their dignity and autonomy, and building resilience. The report notes that “striking the balance between short- and long-term needs and addressing these simultaneously rather than sequentially remains a major challenge”.
  • The work of humanitarian organizations is complementary to that of development actors. Development organizations may be better placed than humanitarians to work with public authorities on broader, structural issues of unemployment and poverty reduction, but they are often not in a position to address specific vulnerabilities at the individual and household levels.


Honduras | Nigeria | Somalia