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UN agency resolves to help deal with growing numbers of refugees fleeing to urban areas

10 December 2009 – A United Nations gathering aimed at tackling some of the urgent problems suffered by the mounting number of refugees seeking shelter in cities and towns has wrapped up today with calls for greater efforts to help the forcibly displaced.

More than half of the 10.5 million refugees served by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now live in urban areas, with only a third sheltering in tents in sprawling camps and the remainder living outside camps in rural areas.

UNHCR said that cities present opportunities to stay anonymous, make money, and build a better future. However, refugees may not have legal documents that are respected, they may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention, and they can be in competition with the poorest local workers for the worst jobs.

The challenges faced by growing urbanization are “compounded by influxes of displaced people obliged to abandon their homes by the threat of armed conflict, political violence, lawlessness, food insecurity, environmental degradation and natural disasters,” UNHCR António Guterres told more than 300 delegates in Geneva at yesterday’s opening.

“At the same time, evidence shows that high urbanization in States in conflict does not necessarily diminish when conflict ends,” said Mr. Guterres. “To rely exclusively on the traditional solution of repatriating refugees and returning internally displaced persons [IDPs] to their places of origin in rural areas is increasingly implausible.”

UNHCR and the international community have until now tended to focus on camp-based refugees and IDPs, added Mr. Guterres.

This year, UNHCR adopted a change of policy towards protection and durable solutions for refugees in cities and towns, drawing on the experience of aiding some 400,000 of the nearly 2 million Iraqis displaced since 2003, most of whom fled to big cities in neighbouring countries.

“The new, more clearly rights-based policy emphasizes the fact that UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities towards refugees are not affected by their location,” said Mr. Guterres. “It recognizes that cities and towns are legitimate places for refugees and displaced populations to reside and to enjoy their basic human rights.

“The policy does not intend to disregard or subordinate national laws,” Mr. Guterres told the delegates, which included mayors and other municipal officials, aid workers, experts, refugees, and representatives from member states of UNHCR’s governing body.

The High Commissioner said the new approach was based on three closely related principles: efforts must be integrated with the broader context of marginalized populations in urban settings, paying particular attention to protecting the rights of poor and disadvantaged communities; they must focus developmental as well as relief needs, supporting the wider process of urban planning and poverty reduction; and the approach must establish and strengthen partnerships with central governments, municipal and local authorities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector and the marginalized populations themselves.

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