LIVING ON THE MARGINS: The Socio-spatial Representation of Urban Internally Displaced Persons in Ethiopia

Dereje Regasa, Ameyu Godesso, and Ine Lietaert

International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 47, Issue 3 (2023)


This article analyzes the multidimensional aspects of urban marginality of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia. According to IDMC, Ethiopia had more than five million IDPs at the end of 2021. The authors consider three aspects of urban marginality: (1) spatial marginality (physical distance and segregation); (2) social marginality (relations with other urban residents and the city); and (3) symbolic marginality (stigma).  

The research was conducted in Gelan Kersa and Sululta IDP settlements between September 2020 and August 2021. Gelan Kersa, a village on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, received more than 1,800 IDP households from the Somali region that were relocated to a planned settlement in an area contested by farmers and city residents. Sululta, a town 25 km north of Addis, received 521 IDP households. The ethnographic research included observation of the settlements as well as informal exchanges and interviews with IDPs, local residents and stakeholders. 

Main findings: 

  • Like the urban poor, IDPs experience spatial marginality due to physical distance and segregation. In Kersa, IDPs’ physical distance from Addis, and segregation from neighboring villagers created a sense of isolation and detachment. IDPs in Kersa highlighted their poor access to basic urban services, including water shortages (water is trucked in) and lack of adequate sanitation facilities, health care facilities, secondary school, and market. Access to urban services available outside of the settlement was impeded by high transportation costs. IDPs also highlighted the mismatch between their urban backgrounds and the village setting. IDPs in Sululta experienced a similar sense of exclusion due to geographical barriers, such as rivers or bridges and land that become impassable in the rainy season.  
  • Social distance adds to the urban marginality of IDPs. Physical distance and segregation contribute to social distance by limiting social interactions between IDPs and other urban residents. IDPs also highlighted experiences of discrimination and harassment when accessing local government or transportation services. Additional factors that contribute to social distance are language differences, religious differences, and lack of inclusion in public meetings.  
  • Symbolic representation and stigmatization of IDPs reinforces differences between IDPs and other urban residents. Urban IDPs experience additional marginality due to stigmatization of their urban neighborhoods and displacement. For example, IDPs are often called ‘the Somali’ and their settlements called “the Somali neighborhood” because they were displaced from the Somali region, even though they are ethnically Oromo like most local residents. Government officials and local residents link the IDP settlements to illicit economic activities such as smuggling and drug use. Intensive policing has also contributed to stigma and symbolic marginality. 
  • Poor housing and insecure tenure introduce an additional layer of precarity. IDPs highlighted the inferior quality of dwellings and insecurity of tenure, as IDPs do not own titles to their land. 

The authors conclude that IDPs’ experiences of segregation, social distance and stigmatization impede their access to urban space and services. They call for inclusive urban governance that enables IDPs to contribute to and benefit from urbanization as citizens.