A move away from refugee camps requires a collaborative solution for housing

Co-authored by Eva Kaplan, Regional Innovation Director, and Samer Saliba, Urban Response Learning Manager

We welcome Owen Barder’s provocation that the humanitarian community should move away from refugee camps. Barder argues that we should develop alternative solutions that, if successful, will justify an end to camps — the one he suggests is cash transfers. He rightly notes that cash is a critical intervention that empowers displaced populations to make decisions in a way that other interventions fail to do. But cash will not solve all problems. Our work has currently been pointing to one area that represents a critical gap in the humanitarian toolkit, with clear implications for any move away from camps: urban housing.

The majority of refugees already live outside of camps, largely in urban areas. For many cities, decades of urbanization have led to pressures including overcrowding, competition for limited low-income housing, and strains on water and electricity infrastructure. When crisis strikes, displaced people entering cities are not creating problems — they are exacerbating already existing problems.

The International Rescue Committee has been researching urban refugees for the past three years, and housing has surfaced as a critical priority through two very separate initiatives. The first is the Mahali Lab, a community innovation lab in Jordan, in which people impacted by displacement are in the lead of defining challenges and developing solutions. The second is from an ongoing research project called Urban Refuge, where the IRC has interviewed local government representatives from 23 host cities around the world, as diverse as Istanbul, Milan, Maiduguri, and Mogadishu. From both community and municipal perspectives, urban housing is a challenge that looms large.

Owen Barder on Displaced, arguing why refugee camps should be abolished.

For municipal leaders and refugees alike, housing challenges are central

Of the 23 city governments the IRC interviewed about displacement, the majority mentioned housing-related challenges. In Mogadishu, according to the regional government of the city, informal settlements for internally displaced people (IDPs) have increased the land value of their locations. In turn, this puts the most vulnerable at a disadvantage to safely occupy the land they have settled, and creates a tension around land and housing as a resource. In Maiduguri, a city which has doubled in size due to displacement, universities are doubling as shelter while their students have stopped going to class.

Refugees also cite housing as a central challenge. In Jordan, camps house only 19% of registered refugees — if we include unregistered refugees, that percentage will be much lower. In Jordan, we’ve seen that in the search for housing, refugees make trade-offs in terms of quality, cost, and location, all of which create or exacerbate other challenges:

  • With 85% of refugees living below the poverty line, the high costs of housing often lead to overcrowding. In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 20% of Syrians in Jordan’s urban areas lived in “substandard accommodation including garages, chicken houses and tents.”
  • Low-quality housing and overcrowding are associated with unhygienic conditions and unsafe climatic exposure (i.e. wet and cold), exacerbating risk of respiratory infections, asthma, and other health challenges.
  • Housing location influences access to a number of basic needs. Low-cost housing is often based far away from transportation networks, schools, places of employment, and municipal services like water provision or waste collection. From our focus group conversations with women refugees in particular, it is clear that where you live and who lives near you is very much tied to feelings of safety in your community, dignity, and home.

When the Mahali Lab engaged affected populations in solving a challenge on income to meet basic needs, one team focused exclusively on housing because, as one Syrian refugee in Amman told us, “If you solved the rent issue, you would have solved the income issue.” Rent accounts for around half of the monthly costs among those who receive UNHCR cash transfers. Furthermore, the top three reported changes in spending from UNHCR cash transfer recipients were related to housing, including 92% citing the “ability to pay rent.”

You may argue that we need to simply increase the level of cash assistance. But even in a scenario where that would be possible, it might not solve the root of the problem. Affordable housing options are constrained by existing infrastructure. When new arrivals move into a city, having cash in hand will not go very far if the city does not have the affordable housing for them to spend it on. Even wealthy cities like Milan or Paris, which are hosting relatively tiny numbers of arrivals, already had waiting lists for social housing over 100,000. Even if refugees have access to social housing programs, they end up at the back of the line.

Now imagine we’ve somehow solved infrastructure constraints: the problem could still persist. This is because, ultimately, the challenge of urban housing is about politics and power. Landlords are shrewd, and in Jordan we heard many anecdotes from refugees indicating that landlords are effectively able to play the market, adjusting rental prices based on cash transfers coming into the market. A refugee in Amman explained that cash transfers have created the perception that all costs for refugees are covered by NGOs, leading, for example, to landlords hooking multiple electricity accounts to a Syrian family’s meter. Cash may be a good way to ensure refugees are able to access housing in the short term, but assuring their security of tenure and rights as homeowners or tenants is the ultimate challenge. Providing cash subsidies to refugees and leaving them to fend for themselves in an unregulated or informal housing market opens up opportunities for discrimination, exploitation, and profiteering.

Too few actors

Shelter is a human right, but in humanitarian work, shelter has traditionally been defined in terms of temporary housing in camps and innovation in this space has followed suit — take for example Ikea’s much publicized caravan. Humanitarian organizations working on urban housing are few and far between. There are some notable exceptions: We have been particularly inspired by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s work in Jordan and Lebanon, the UNHCR in Athens, and we welcome the work of the Global Shelter Cluster Urban Areas Working Group in moving forward this agenda at the global level. However, even where these actors are strong, it is not enough. In our focus groups in Jordan, refugees were convinced that no NGO in Jordan was working on urban housing at all. This came as no surprise to our colleagues at the NRC. They told us, “We can’t do this alone.” This is echoed at the global level, as one UN representative told the IRC, “We have yet to tackle affordable housing issues in a holistic way,” and within donor priorities (shelter accounted for just 0.6% of the overall donor commitments in 2017).

In the language of human rights, we are looking at an overall failure of duty bearers to address the right to shelter those displaced in urban areas.

What would a robust housing solution look like?

Cash is cash in any city. Housing is different in every city. In any given city, the experience that refugees and host populations will have depends on the preexisting dynamics of the city.

There are some examples of success. Greek cities are working with UNHCR to provide housing subsidies both to refugees as tenants and to landlords directly, or with third parties renting on behalf of refugees. The program is largely successful because it’s implemented with an understanding of the housing market. But the market in Athens can’t be compared to other cities. As one senior shelter and settlements official for UNHCR told the IRC, “How do you compare Athens to Bangui, where there is no formal system? The Bangui housing market relies on personal connections and informal negotiations. There’s a high risk of being ripped off and there are no standard agreements. The breadth of rental responses is differentiated on context.”

Humanitarians are currently ill equipped for the messy issue of urban housing. It involves a constant push and pull between city government policies, developers’ bottom lines, the interests and rights of landowners and tenants, and the context in which they are all working together. Navigating the urban housing maze will require humanitarians to move beyond the standard humanitarian toolkit — there is no service delivery model, cash or otherwise, that will suffice. Humanitarians will have to maintain a commitment to a rights-based framework while being savvy about the context, including deeply understanding the available infrastructure, the housing market, city politics, and the partners needed to get it done right.

If we want to take the idea of moving away from camps seriously, then we will also have to take considerations into urban housing solutions seriously.