UNHCR describes internally displaced persons (IDPs) as “probably the largest group of vulnerable people in the world.”1 Although it is nearly impossible to estimate the global number of urban IDPs, the figures that do exist would put the total at nearly four million.2 Yet this group remains silent, largely ignored, and without hope for durable solutions to their plight.
Urban IDPs are often denied basic human rights; living in squalor and lacking physical security and freedom of movement. Without documentation urban IDPs are left unprotected by their national government and suffer as a result of insufficient food, water, healthcare and education. Women and children displaced in urban areas are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, urban IDPs are unable to improve their situation, since limited access to livelihoods prevents them from becoming self-reliant.
There exist a number of obstacles to finding solutions for urban IDPs. Firstly, the difficulty in identifying this group hinders accurate data collection, thorough research and effective policy making. Secondly, the dynamics of displacement are particularly complex and interconnected, and can have many phases. Thirdly, urban IDPs have specific and often unidentified capacities and needs. Finally, their situation is complicated by political concerns regarding sovereignty and international jurisdiction. Urban IDPs have therefore been categorized as a „messy‟ beneficiary; receiving little attention from donors and international aid agencies preferring to focus initiatives on more visible and attainable targets.These factors have conspired to create a vacuum of protection for this particularly vulnerable group, who are without access to the safeguards and assistance available to most other persons of concern. The predicament of ignored urban IDPs thus requires the immediate attention of national authorities, international organizations and civil society.


The issue of urban IDPs suffers from the lack of a clear definition. Without a clarification of the actual target for new policy, it is impossible to design and implement effective durable solutions. Although it is often difficult to analytically distinguish rural areas from urban areas, and the forced internally displaced from regular rural-to-urban migrants, these distinctions are crucial for national and international authorities to be able to provide measured and effective assistance to millions of urban IDPs.

Historically, there has been a wide-ranging misunderstanding and misuse of the term « urban IDP‟. Confusion exists mainly in respect to whether the „urban‟ aspect of the label applies to the place of departure or the place of destination. Indeed, the term « urban IDP‟ has been applied to city dwellers displaced into the countryside, as well as to returning refugees who have become urbanized during their time spent in a host country. To clarify, an „urban IDP‟ is a person displaced from their place of habitual residence (be it rural or urban, at home or abroad) into an urban environment in their own country.

Urban IDPs are very difficult to identify, however. Unlike IDPs in rural camps, urban IDPs are not formally separated from the local community or housed in easily recognizable regions. In reality, they are found scattered across urban areas, or residing with host families. Even in instances where urban IDPs inhabit designated buildings or areas, they usually rely on local markets and social services. Thus they are de facto integrated in urban areas, making it difficult to distinguish them from economic migrants and the urban poor. The actions of urban IDPs may further hinder efforts to locate them; urban IDPs are unlikely to reveal themselves in cases where their security is threatened.
IDPs in urban environments are less photogenic and less visible than those in camps. The plight of urban IDPs therefore goes largely ignored by an international media flooded with other compelling images. Effective protection is further limited by the fact that both host governments and donors are not generally keen on assisting IDPs in urban environments because many assume that those who make it to cities can support themselves.


Firstly, the word „urban‟ is a broad and subjective term of reference, with widely varying definitions. According to the Oxford English dictionary, it is an adjective relating to a town or a city and derives from the Latin urbanus, from urbs meaning « city‟, but the term is also often applied to conurbations and metropolitan areas. Even cities themselves have differing scales. For example, Tokyo accommodates over 30 million people, whereas the city of Ferdania in Saudi Arabia has only one police station, one school, one market, one gas station, one health centre, and about 10 houses.
Official records may in theory provide guidance in demarcating an urban area, but this also has associated risks. Many peri-urban or squatter settlements are excluded from official statistics and do not appear on city maps.4 Urban sprawl is also a complicating factor; the tendency for a city and its suburbs to spread into the surrounding rural areas makes it impossible to define the border of an urban region that is constantly changing.
For the purposes of this paper, „urban‟ areas will include surrounding suburbs, in order to incorporate urban IDP camps located on the outskirts of cities, or along peripheral city roads.


Another complexity lies in the precise definition of IDPs; an acronym lamented a “soulless shorthand of bureaucracy” by UNHCR.5 According to the agency, “UNHCR has an interest in the protection and welfare of persons who have been displaced by persecution, situations of general violence, conflict or massive violations of human rights: in other words, all those, who, had they crossed an international frontier, would have had a claim to international protection.”6 Notably, this description does not include IDPs displaced as a result of natural disasters or development activities. Nonetheless, the subsequent „overriding‟ consensus is that these persons are also worthy of attention, since they can also be subject to discrimination and human rights violations in the course of their displacement.
The term IDP is a descriptive, not a legal definition, since the legal rights of IDPs are upheld by their local government.8 As such, a difficulty arises in categorizing children born to IDPs, as the child has never actually been displaced from their habitual residence. This is another problem with the UNHCR definition of IDPs, and represents a significant protection gap for children of concern. Moreover, there is no agreement on when internal displacement ends.9 confounding the problem of definition further is the fact that the internally displaced are often lazily referred to as “refugees”, despite remaining within their national borders.
For the purposes of this paper, urban IDPs will thus be defined more broadly, in line with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. That is, an urban IDP lives outside of a rural setting, and fulfills the following criteria:
persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally
recognized State border.


Urban IDPs are a unique and understudied vulnerable population. The complex dynamics of their displacement motivates further research whilst simultaneously being a hindrance to the methodological process. The causes of displacement are many and varied within and between countries, as well as over different time periods.11 The process of displacement of an urban IDP is not simply a one-off movement from rural to urban areas, nor is urban settlement a permanent or static state of affairs. Urban IDPs often reach towns and cities having been displaced more than once before, and usually having found refuge somewhere along the way.
Furthermore, the situation of urban IDPs continues to change and evolve once they have arrived in the urban environment. Urban IDPs move within towns and cities as they seek to improve their living conditions and livelihood opportunities. The urban displaced also structure social networks and geographical proximity within urban areas to form urban IDP communities, such as „Acholi Town‟ in Kampala. Some of these areas have subsequently been the target of forced government evictions, resulting in the secondary displacement of already uprooted individuals or groups. The situation of urban IDPs is thus extremely insecure and volatile, even following their settlement in a new urban environment.


A narrow conception of urban IDPs being displaced by armed conflict is insufficient to describe and understand the motivations and needs of this diverse group. In reality, a sole cause for forced internal displacement and the subsequent formation of an urban IDP population can be difficult to identify. Although there is usually a short-term catalyst, it is common for a number of contributory factors to convince people that migration to urban areas will provide a better life for themselves and/or their family. Moreover, the short-term and long-term factors are inextricably linked. It must be recognized that the causes of internal displacement cannot be treated as independent variables – there are complex linkages between them.
The causes for the displacement of the populations that become urban IDPs also vary across genders, ages and ethnic groups. For example, certain individuals may seek physical safety in urban areas, such as the children in danger of abduction in Ugandan rural IDP camps, or women at risk of sexual and gender based violence. Thousands of young men who lack employment opportunities in rural IDP camps have become urban……………………