Peter Biro
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Urban Refugees

Economic Empowerment of Urban Refugee Youth:
Guiding Principles

Eric,* a Burundian refugee in Kampala, Uganda, has experienced hardships beyond his 25 years. His home is a flimsy tent in a section of the city known as the “neighborhood of struggle.” Eric works odd jobs when he can find them: collecting garbage, washing cars, cleaning homes and ironing clothes. When his day labor isn’t enough to provide for Eric’s one daily meal, he begs. His wife has left, turning to commercial sex work as an escape from their desperate poverty. His son lives with him part of the time.

Like Eric and his family, an estimated 50 percent of the world’s 10.5 million refugees now reside in cities. They often have few assets and limited support networks, and are constrained by legal, cultural and linguistic barriers. With few resources and employment options, women and girls in particular often rely on risky activities, such as commercial sex work, to survive. Refugee youth in urban areas are often not in school or employed, leading to a “lost generation.”

To date, most humanitarian efforts have focused on addressing the issues faced by camp-based refugees, leaving the needs and circumstances of urban refugees poorly understood. We do know that urban refugees want to stand on their own two feet, support their families, educate their children and build a better future. But in striving for self-sufficiency, they face many potent obstacles. The Women’s Refugee Commission seeks to understand the unique strengths and challenges of urban refugees, making their livelihoods and protection top priorities.

Urban refugees come to cities looking for work, better opportunities and security. However, they often lack access to basic services, such as health care and education. They are often denied the necessary legal rights to participate in the mainstream economy and are thus pushed underground, into informal jobs. There, they face extortion, exploitation, abuse and arrest.

The Women’s Refugee Commission conducts research to improve and make a difference in the lives of urban refugees. We go into the slums to learn firsthand about the needs of displaced women, men and youth. We go into the commercial markets to understand the challenges and opportunities of doing business as a refugee. We use this research to develop guidance that will help others design innovative, market-based livelihood programs, which ensure that refugees gain skills that will allow them to make a decent living. We then test these models in local contexts, monitor the results and share what we’ve learned through reports, trainings, practical tools and advocacy.

*Name changed for anonymity.