When most people think of refugees in the developing world, they picture refugee camps. Sonia Ben Ali, co-founder of URBAN REFUGEES, is trying to change that. Worldwide, over 50 percent of refugees live not in camps, but in urban host communities. URBAN REFUGEES supports programming for these refugees—while advocating for durable, long-term alternatives to refugee camps. In this interview, Ms. Ben Ali argues for the urgent need to support urban refugees, highlights innovative programming practices, and discusses her organization’s vision of a world with #NoMoreCamps. 

What was the inspiration and impetus behind URBAN REFUGEES?

Ms. Ben Ali, co-founder of URBAN REFUGEES

Ms. Ben Ali, co-founder of URBAN REFUGEES

This idea of creating URBAN REFUGEES matured over several years. My involvement in the humanitarian field started when I was in Colombia, a country massively affected by internal displacement. I started working with a local organization that was supporting IDPs [internally displaced people] in the south of Bogota. That experience drew my attention to the forced migration field, and it resonated with my own family story. My father left his home country when he was very young. He arrived in France, made his life there, and he never returned to his homeland. I grew up hearing his stories around exile and uprooting. So when I heard the stories of people in Colombia who had been displaced, it really affected me deeply and I began devoting myself to forced displacement topics.

After Colombia, I continued working in different countries with refugees. One of my experiences was when I worked in a refugee camp in a country in the Middle East. This is when I saw first-hand how dehumanizing refugee camps are. You can feel this open-air prison. I visited one of those camps, and met a family of eight or more living together in such a small space. I really felt that this can’t be true—it’s absolutely shocking when you see that. You realize that refugees have been here for decades in a situation that was intended to be temporary…and yet, they have no solution in sight. I was deeply touched by this reality, and felt strongly that refugee camps are not at all a solution to anything.

“How can it be easier for humanitarian organizations to work in a place where refugees’ dignity is put aside?”

My most recent experiences were in Lebanon, where I worked with urban refugees. In Beirut, I realized how challenging it is for humanitarian organizations to support refugees in cities.  In many countries of the developing world, refugees are considered to be “irregular migrants” when they live outside camps, and they thus tend to keep a low profile. It is thus relatively easier to support refugees in camps than in cities. There is something wrong in that: how can it be easier to work in a place where refugees’ dignity is put aside? Step by step, I started to think about this encampment issue, about all those refugees who live in urban settings because they don’t want to be in refugee camps.

The final experience that drew me to create URBAN REFUGEES was a visit to a detention center in Beirut which had been holding detained urban refugees for weeks, and often even months. They were in a psychological state that was really bad, and the conditions were extremely hard. Many had not seen the daylight for months. That was when I realized that urban refugees are the invisible, with no one to advocate for them.

What is an “urban refugee”—what do you and other organizations mean by this term?

When you look at the internationally-recognized definition—the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees—refugees are people who have fled persecution for one of the five convention grounds (nationality, race, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group) and sought refuge in another country. Contrary to migrants, refugees are unable to return to their home country. “Urban refugees,” therefore, are people who fit the internationally-recognized refugee definition and are located in an urban setting. This is not a legal definition: it is an operational one used by the international community.

“This humanitarian model based on refugee camps is outdated. Most refugees now live in cities, yet the humanitarian community struggles to adapt to this reality.”

Why is this a question? Because since the emergence of the refugee protection regime in the 1950’s, refugee situations have been addressed mainly through refugee camps. However, in our view, this humanitarian model based on refugee camps is outdated. Most refugees now live in cities, yet the humanitarian community struggles to adapt to this reality.  This is why we are building a “Best Practices Network,” which is a space where NGOs working with urban refugees share information on successful programs and mentor each other to replicate them.

Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp. UN Photo/Mark Garten

How does URBAN REFUGEES select its partner organizations? What are the strongest programs and interventions you have seen your partners implement in support of urban refugees?

Part of URBAN REFUGEES’ mission is to partner with organizations to increase their capacity to support urban refugees. We select partners that are either local or international NGOs working, or aiming to work, specifically with urban refugees. We also welcome community-based organizations (CBOs) that are run by urban refugees themselves, which is very important to us. All our network members work in developing countries, not Western countries.  We chose this focus because today, more than 80% of refugees now live in the developing world, where there is less available support.

The most effective interventions are those that can capitalize on the strengths of urban refugee communities to rebuild their own lives. Providing refugees with microfinance services goes into this direction, as some organizations are starting to do.

Other effective practices are those that can help refugees truly rebuild their lives without creating parallel services, which can create resentment with host populations. So instead of creating a school that only refugee kids can attend, the idea is more to help existing schools integrate refugees by providing them for example with additional teachers or by building new classrooms. These are investments that benefit the host population on the long run. CARE or the Norwegian Refugee Council started investing in these kind of area-based urban improvements, updating plumbing in some Lebanese neighborhoods, for example. These programs are not specifically targeting refugees, but rather provide a service to a whole neighborhood.

“The most effective interventions are those that can capitalize on the strengths of urban refugee communities to rebuild their own lives.”

Of course, you can imagine how this is a revolution in the humanitarian field. It changes everything. When these kinds of programs are created, the lines between humanitarian and development work are blurred, and this is what’s interesting. I think humanitarian work should be fundamentally different: refugee situations are not short-term. They last for years. The average length of displacement is 17 years. So they demand long-term approaches that build the future both of refugees and the host population. This means of course revising the way donors fund programs. Funding schemes allowing for long-term programming need to be urgently created to address refugee crises.

In many contexts, the presence of displaced people in urban settings has become controversial and politicized. What does URBAN REFUGEES do to help to ease these tensions?

Political tensions exist both in the so called “developed” and in the “developing” world—one example is what happened recently in Kenya, where the government asked Somali refugees living in urban settings to go back to refugee camps. What we do to ease those tensions is to continue spreading the message that refugees contribute to their host community, especially when they have the means to do so. Some excellent research on this topic has started to emerge such as the one of Alexander Betts from the Oxford Refugee Studies Center which shows how refugees contribute in measurable ways to the economies of local host communities. When they have access to the labor market, refugees actually create growth and employment for local population. We base our advocacy work on this evidence.

Urban refugees in Vienna. Josh Zakary

Urban refugees in Vienna. Josh Zakary

What are URBAN REFUGEES’ objectives for the upcoming year? 

This year, our big strategic goal is to open our first field program in Malaysia, which will be an incubation program for urban-refugee CBOs. All around the world, refugees are doing what you and I would do if we were displaced tomorrow: we would help each other. CBOs run by refugees are the vehicle for refugees to help each other, and they provide invaluable support to their communities. However, very often, these organizations face difficult challenges with fundraising, becoming incorporated as organizations, communicating with the media, etc. We want to support CBOs to become better structured and self-sustaining by providing their leaders with a six-month intensive training on subjects such as project management, fundraising or media outreach. There is a huge need—more than 50 CBOs from all around the world already applied to join the program, so much so that we now have a waiting list!

This year, we also would like to put forward our #NoMoreCamps campaign, a global civil society movement we are leading which calls for alternatives to refugee camps. Our key advocacy message is clear: refugee camps are not a solution and there are alternatives to them. We plan to push this forward at the policy level.

What is URBAN REFUGEES’ long-term vision?

We have a big dream at URBAN REFUGEES. Our dream is for urban refugee CBOs to come together to form a Global Refugee Council within the next five years. It will be managed and run by refugees themselves, and become the voice of refugees at the global level.  This way, when a refugee crisis emerges —like the one that’s happening at the moment—journalists and other stakeholders could turn to this organization to get input directly from refugee communities. Instead of the disparate narratives in the mainstream dialogues today, the collective voice of refugees would be raised through their community leaders. This Global Refugee Council would also be able to conduct various activities such as advocacy, raising public awareness, being present at international and regional events. There are 14 million refugees in the world today. We believe it’s absolutely imperative to hear their voice directly and give them a place at the table.

Our second vision is very much related: In the long term, we would love a world without refugee camps. We engage in advocacy toward this goal, documenting alternatives to refugee camps and then use this evidence to push our message forward to donors, governments, and United Nations decision-makers.

“Refugees have capacities. They should not be viewed as humanitarian targets or a ‘burden.’ Our aim is to raise their voices out of the shadows.”

… My main message is twofold. First, refugees have capacities. They should not be viewed as humanitarian targets or a “burden.” Our aim is to raise their voices out of the shadows and to help them be consulted in decisions affecting their own lives. Secondly, it is urgent to expand programs that offer alternatives to refugee camps—so that people do not have to spend their lives in refugee camps that can offer only the bleakest of futures. Refugee camps are simply not tenable for either refugees or host communities, yet they are still the norm. URBAN REFUGEES is dedicated to changing that.

To learn more, visit URBAN REFUGEES’ website and Facebook.

Cover photo of Somali refugees in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia from UNICEF Ethiopia (UNHCR/ Somali refugees/ J. Ose). 



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