This is a guest post from Sonia Ben Ali, co-founder of the non-profit URBAN REFUGEES, exploring how innovation is needed to serve this invisible population. URBAN REFUGEES belief in the capacity of urban refugees to invent their own solutions echoes TACSI’s principle of “Starting with People” and using an assets-based approach to co-designing new approaches which inspired us to share the work they’re doing.


The story of Anilo, urban refugee

Anilo is Somali. She fled her country in 2010 to avoid persecution and eventually settled in Nairobi, Kenya, to find safety and dignity. All she found there was more discrimination and extreme poverty. Anilo has no access to health or education. She lives in a slum and is regularly arrested by the police as her refugee status is not recognised by the authorities.

Before arriving in Nairobi, Anilo stopped for some time in a humanitarian refugee camp, but she quickly escaped from it because the security conditions were poor and the camp was overcrowded and dirty. Perhaps more importantly, she did not have any kind of future prospects there and would remain fully dependent on humanitarian aid, which she could not stand as an independent young woman. Making her way to the city was thus the most logical thing she could do, even though this led to further difficulties. She would at least get a sense of normality.

Most refugees do not live in camps, but in cities

Anilo is just one among many millions of refugees, not in camps but living what life they can within cities in developing countries (in Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America). Yet we hear next to nothing about this when the refugee crisis is portrayed in Western media. There, the attention continues to be focused both on developed countries (Europe, USA, Australia…), where only 14% of the world’s refugees live, and on refugee camps in developing countries, where a third of the refugees live.

Urban Refugees

In fact at present around 58% of the world’s refugees live in urban areas. The Syrian crisis is no exception: in Jordan, 84% of Syrian refugees live in cities, outside the United Nations-run camps. This figure rises to 90% in the case of Turkey. The reasons for this phenomenon are easy to understand: beyond being unhealthy and poorly secured, the camps offer no prospect of a return to normality.

The High Commissioner for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has issued a policy on Alternatives to Camps in 2014, acknowledging that the camp model is outdated and does not match the needs and realities of these lives in exile. Yet refugee camps are still the default model when it comes to managing refugee crisis. Just have a look at the recent EU/Turkey plan, which conditions the relocation of Syrian refugees to Europe to their presence in camps.

When the left behind come together

This focus on camps at the expense of cities has huge consequences for the relief effort. Many developing countries have not signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Unable to obtain legal status and no longer benefiting from humanitarian aid, millions of urban refugees live in unbearable situations. The fear of being arrested and detained is constant; they do not have the right to work, do not have access to education or health; they are then easy prey for local criminal networks.

This pushes urban refugees to form community organisations to address the lack of support from the international community. These organisations, either formal or informal, are found everywhere in developing countries. Managed by the refugees themselves, they try to improve the lives of their community members through activities such as education for children, language courses or psychological support. Yet their means are meagre, which greatly limits their potential.

Innovation from the ground up

URBAN REFUGEES believes in and invests in the potential of these refugee-led organisations. We believe in the powerful resilience and capacity of refugees to find solutions to their own problems in spite of scarce resources and visibility.

We have designed an incubation program which specifically aims to strengthen the capacities of refugee-led organisations. It involves a six-month intensive, on the ground training program in areas such as governance, fundraising, communications, advocacy, media outreach and project management. The underlying idea is to help these refugee-led organisations find more funding for their activities, attract humanitarian assistance and media attention and make their voices heard at the international and regional levels. Our first pilot program will be in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a refugee organisation starting later this year.

With the growing presence of refugees in cities, it is high time for public policies, the media and the humanitarian system as a whole to make camps an exception, not the rule, and to empower the refugees themselves to find their own solutions.


In addition to piloting the Incubator for refugee-led organisations URBAN REFUGEES has partnered with Facebook developers to create SMS Up, a group messaging service being piloted with the participating organisations at the incubator. Many refugees across the developing world do not have Internet on their phone, which prevents them from using Apps like What’s App for group communications. SMS enables them to self-organise easily, and communicate time-sensitive information without an Internet connection, using an SMS distribution list. It also enables them to create their own list, moving away from the top down manner of delivering information to refugees. Exciting stuff! You can find out more at their website.

Urban Refugees SMS Up