Unsafe havens – displacement within and between cities

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She was assisted in the preparation of this essay by graduate students Christian Jepsen and Eric Smith. The essay was also written with Chris Horwood, director of Ravenstone Consult and an independent consultant.

Because of the opportunities they offer for employment and social connections, cities predominate as destinations for refugees and migrants. But they are far from risk-free, and when crisis strikes or events turn against them, many have no choice but to move on again.


Every year across the world countless thousands of people are forced to move within or between cities for a wide variety of reasons. This essay explores how IDPs, migrants and refugees are affected by such involuntary intra- and inter- urban displacement. Both forms of displacement are somewhat invisible and, for the most part, difficult to measure because municipalities rarely keep track of them.

Most of the principal causes of urban displacement can be grouped into four broad categories: urban development (such as gentrification or infrastructure growth), armed conflict and other forms of violence, disasters (such as those caused by flooding and earthquakes), and organised state activity (such as deportation and detention).

Recent years have seen a growing recognition that in the event of conflicts or disasters triggered by natural hazards, settled or transiting migrants and refugees are often disproportionately affected and may “fall through the cracks of emergency preparedness”, mainly because relief and recovery systems and host state actors “do not always readily identify or understand migrants’ unique needs.” Since many IDPs, migrants and refugees head to cities in destination states, these gaps are especially evident in urban settings, where the stakes are especially high:

Rapid and badly managed urban growth and the forced movement of people to and within cities stretches urban systems and the capacity of authorities and host communities to deal with displacement. Urban crises may also trigger new and secondary displacement, creating a downward spiral of vulnerability and risk. How displacement and urban change are managed therefore makes the difference between systemic resilience or risk of collapse.

Of course, urban displacement affects a much wider range of people than just displaced people, migrants and refugees. This essays looks at these various groups, types of displacement and possible displacement outcomes as illustrated in the table opposite.

Precarious living

In host countries with very large refugee populations but no or few formal refugee camps, such as South Africa, Egypt, India, and Lebanon, almost all refugees live in informal settlements located in and around towns and cities.2 Internal and international migrants in many parts of the world also live in marginalised and insecure urban areas, often informal settlements or slums. These areas tend to be particularly susceptible to disruptions that cause secondary displacement, the forced movement of refugees and migrants from their chosen destinations. Of the 7 million internally displaced people in Syria, for example, at least half have experienced multiple displacements as a result of armed conflict or the inability to survive in depleted host communities.

Two very different countries exemplify the types of low-income and marginal housing areas migrants and refugees often find themselves in. In China’s burgeoning cities, millions of internal migrant workers live in ghetto-like sprawling enclaves, “semi-urbanised villages” where “crime, illegal construction and public health problems have become big headaches for municipal governments”. In Kenya, rural-to-urban migration drives the growth of Nairobi’s numerous (40+) slum settlements, which house over half of the city’s population of more than 3 million people. Nairobi is home to some 16 percent of Kenya’s 500,000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 81,000 reside in Nairobi and other urban locations, mostly in the poorer settlements.

The triggers of intra- and inter-urban displacement affect migrants and refugees alike. Every city has its own distinct conditions, but in many cases multiple triggers come into play. For example, Mexico City has a high earthquake risk, is also expanding rapidly both in terms of population and economic growth, and is home to the Sinaloa drug cartel, whose violence can compel people to leave their homes, as it does to a larger degree in cities in the Northern Triangle.

The distribution of risk within cities is not equal. Earthquakes, for example, can strike anywhere, but people living in the poorest areas will normally be much more affected when they occur as such districts take longer to recover. Displacement from such districts is likely to be more extensive, and return less likely.

Urban development

Urban development includes the gentrification (or “beautification”) of neighbourhoods, or the creation of new infrastructure (such as airport expansion, roads, or power plants), or the construction of malls, new housing areas, or special economic zones, and in some cases the creation of entirely new cities. With urban development comes the displacement of poor people— including migrants, internally displaced people (IDPs), and refugees—either because they can no longer afford rents when the value of housing increases and have to move, or are made to move against their will (see chapter on evictions below) by private landowners or the state

Forced evictions

Globally, millions of people are forcibly and illegally evicted in cities every year.   

Forced evictions take place all over the world. Communities are often evicted in the name of development or regeneration. Building roads, railways or even tourist resorts are common reasons given for forcibly evicting people from their homes. Who’s at risk? For the most part, people lacking security of tenure […] they could be migrants, asylum seekers, people marginalised from society, uneducated and unaware of their rights.

The impact of forced evictions can be profound and long-lasting, “undermin[ing] efforts to help marginalised and vulnerable people escape poverty and secure durable solutions to their displacement.”

UN-Habitat, which set up an advisory group on forced evictions in 2004, has noted that in many countries, unlawful evictions of squatters, low-income renters, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups with inadequate or no legal security of tenure are carried out with relative ease.

Examples are numerous, especially in cities of the global South. In 2019, 108,000 IDPs in Mogadishu were evicted from their land and shelters. “This number is down from more than 200,000 in 2018, when evictions spiked, but demonstrates that much of the problem remains.” As well as forced evictions, an increasing number of people in Somalia are fleeing their homes for a range of other reasons, including “incessant fighting, recurrent droughts and floods, and the worst locust invasion in 25 years, “leading to severe overcrowding and an intensifying risk of Covid-19” among IDPs.

In Nairobi, construction of a new road led to 30,000 evictions from the sprawling Kibera slum, but the government’s promises of relocation did not materialise and many who lost their homes ended up living on the streets. In South Sudan, evictions are a “constant risk” for many groups, IDPs in particular, and even more so during the current Covid -19 crisis. In Jakarta, government slum-removal programmes purportedly designed to improve livelihoods and reduce flood risks displaced 25,533 people. The Indonesian government provided education, transportation, and health subsidies but these failed to improve the displaced people’s poverty levels. In Nigeria, the Lagos state government’s slum redevelopment and upgrading from 2007-15 was accompanied by evictions and demolitions.

Their lack of rights, and the fact that they are often afraid to go to the authorities to report discrimination or other unfair practices, leaves migrants and refugees especially susceptible to evictions, including those that are politically motivated.

For example, in 2018, as Lebanese politicians became increasingly vocal in their calls for Syrian refugees to return home, 13 municipalities forcibly evicted some 3,664 Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them from the municipalities, apparently because of their nationality or religion, while another 42,000 refugees “remained at risk of eviction”. In other documented cases, urban authorities forcibly (and illegally) evicted thousands of IDPs and internal migrants from Afghan cities. It is challenging for IDPs in Afghan cities such as Kabul to establish tenure over adequate housing, “which puts them at constant risk of secondary displacement, mainly in the form of evictions

There is no comprehensive data on global urban displacement caused by development, and even less on how migrants and refugees are affected (there are only country-specific or regional assessments). But given the fact that migrants and refugees often comprise a significant share of the population of affected areas, it can be safely inferred that they are frequently and disproportionately displaced. “Urban development and renewal can also force people out of previously affordable areas to the margins of a city, effectively driving them away from their communities, schools and jobs.”

Rights deficit

Migrants and refugees are less likely than host communities to be able to assert their “rights to the city”; they have little recourse when development projects and developers target their neighbourhoods. In China, where millions of internal migrants live in peri-urban locations, their rights are being “progressively subordinated to the state’s pursuit of marketisation of land and urban space.” Migrants’ ‘right to the city’ is increasingly used as a lens through which to understand migrants’ agency and how they act to claim their rights. “Resistance to this process of displacement—carried out through individual negotiations, petitions, lawsuits, holdouts, public gatherings, and protests—demonstrates the highly contentious, politicised nature of China’s increasingly modern, capitalist-conforming urban landscape.”


Armed conflict

In the current civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, much of the worst armed conflict and persecution occur in urban areas. Secondary displacement is widespread, as IDPs flee to safer neighbourhoods in the city or to other cities in the same country to escape shelling or warring factions that persecute and expel certain political, religious, or ethnic groups to solidify control. Cities’ denser populations lead to high death rates, and the cost of rebuilding infrastructure, services and livelihoods can inhibit return. In some cases, the devastation is so severe that cities go through a process of “de-urbanization,” as witnessed in South Sudan.

Sometimes urban displaced populations are specifically targeted by parties to an armed conflict. Examples include a 2015 attack on a camp in Bambari, a city in the Central African Republic, and Boko Haram’s frequent targeting of refugees and IDPs in Nigeria.

International migrants and refugees are especially at risk of secondary displacement when their host country descends into political crisis. For example, a sizable minority of the 1.5 million people who have fled Syria’s civil war are long-term Palestinian refugees. Displaced again for the most part in Lebanon, “they face many similar challenges to their Syrian counterparts but also dissimilarities connected to their Palestinian identity and refugee status.”

Since the 1970s, Libya’s economy had been largely dependent on foreign labour. When the political crisis of 2011 hit, thousands of refugees and migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa who were working in cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi, were caught up in the violence, and their plight worsened when the civil war began in 2014. Many were displaced or expelled from cities, detained in danger zones where they were exposed to shelling and gunfire (see section on detentions below for more details). Today, refugees and migrants continue to arrive in Libya as a destination country or cross Libya en route to the Mediterranean, both groups, whether settled in Libya or stuck in transit, continue to be subject to these forces. The situation in Libya is replicated in other cities in transit countries that descend into civil war. Today one of the most flagrant cases is Yemen, where migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan), stuck in transit, are unable to escape the shelling of cities like Sana’a and Aden. In one 2017 event, more than 40 Somalis died when the boat in which they were fleeing was attacked by a helicopter gunship.

An overlooked outcome – involuntary immobility

Most writing on urban displacement, whatever its cause, reflects a “mobility bias”, giving attention to those who are able to move voluntarily, or even by compulsion when conditions become intolerable, and neglecting the large numbers of people who, even when crisis strikes, simply do not have that option: the involuntary immobile. The involuntarily immobile are highly vulnerable and often invisible people who lack the human or material capital needed to move. This often leaves them to confront worsening physical security, shelter, and public services, not to mention dwindling prospects for employment or other forms of income generation. For foreign city inhabitants, “language barriers, restrictions on mobility, irregular immigration status, confiscated or lost identity or travel documents, limited social networks, isolation, and attacks and discrimination are some of the factors that hinder the ability of migrants [and refugees] to access protection, move out of harm’s way, or otherwise ensure their own safety and wellbeing.”

The United Arab Emirates, where almost 90 percent of workers are migrants, offer a stark and large-scale example of involuntary mobility. The Covid-19 pandemic and the oil price crash led to hundreds of thousands of job losses there in 2020, leaving many migrant workers stranded, broke, and having to fend for themselves in labour camps on the outskirts of cities such as Dubai.

Urban forced displacement sometimes leads to reverse migration in which people flee dangerous cities and return to their rural home areas, or go to rural areas for the first time, or resort to cross-border movement. The phenomenon of gang control and related displacement from cities is widely reported in Latin America. But while African cites like Cairo, Nairobi, and Johannesburg also report an uptick in criminal gangs, there are as yet far fewer, if any, reports of linkages between displacement and criminal gangs

Drug cartel and gangs

Armed confrontations involving state security forces and the drug cartels—and related street gangs—that affect many urban neighbourhoods or even entire cities frequently trigger inter and intra-urban displacement, most notably in cities across Latin America.

In Colombia, the urban impact of illegal military action by armed groups has been observed for decades, with “civilians find[ing] themselves repeatedly displaced from one area to another in an attempt to save their lives, invariably finding themselves in adverse and undignified conditions.” In 2003, many people who fled rural areas of the Pacific coast in the late 1990s for the supposed safety of the city of Buenaventura were repeatedly displaced there because of armed violence.

Crime and violence in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, have been on a rebound since 2016 after years of relative quiet. At the end of 2019, the city had 240 different gangs with some 5,000 members, the majority of whom are loyal to the Oficina de Envigado.

According to extensive field research conducted in the early 2010s, across the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—as well as in Mexico, urban and suburban areas emerged as “principle hotspots of forced displacement” resulting from organised-crime violence, with most movements being urban-to-urban, both within the same city and between different cities.

In 2019, some 454,000 Salvadorans were displaced by conflict and violence, of which 85 percent were displaced by gang violence. Internal displacement in El Salvador is not always sustainable, “and may not neutralise the threats that force people to flee. This means that many are repeatedly displaced.”

Violence is endemic in Honduras, especially in major cities such as Tegucigalpa, where gangs, or maras, often control entire neighbourhoods. The country’s cities are home to tens of thousands of IDPs, many of whom are repeatedly displaced internally, before opting to travel north in an attempt to reach the United States (US).

Natural hazards and disasters

Inter- and intra-urban displacement, including secondary displacement, also occurs when neighbourhoods are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by flooding and other hazards, be they manmade, such as the collapse of trash mountains or fires, or natural, such as earthquakes, tsunamis or, in the 2001 case of the eastern DRC city of Goma—home to thousands of IDPs who had fled conflict—volcanic eruptions. Such hazards become disasters in the absence of preparations sufficient to mitigate their destructive power or to protect populations from their effects.

IDPs in informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to disasters and renewed displacement, given that their initial flight is likely to have worsened their pre-existing vulnerabilities and increased their impoverishment.

Climate change

As sea temperatures rise due to global heating, the risk of powerful hurricanes and flooding rises, threatening coastal areas. With more people living in coastal cities, catastrophic floods are increasing in number and scale. A recent study based on new global elevation data concluded that the number of people vulnerable to sea- level rise and coastal flooding was three times greater than previous, widely used estimates. Within individual cities, the risk of flooding and other disasters is not equally distributed: in cities like Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Dhaka, and Karachi, the areas most at risk for flooding are the informal settlements and low-income neighbourhoods, where migrants often make up the majority of the population, and where housing, road, sanitation and water infrastructure tend to be sub-standard.

Climate change is also predicted to trigger secondary displacement in certain cities to where many people have already fled to escape the rural ravages of global warming:

Some cities will be unable to sustain the influx. In the case of Addis Ababa, the World Bank suggests that in the second half of the century, many of the people who fled there will be forced to move again, leaving that city as local agriculture around it dries up.

Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria (and indeed Africa) is growing exponentially, but this growth—and subsequent investment in roads and other infrastructure—is reducing the city’s water run-off capabilities. The poor areas of Lagos, where the majority of the city’s migrants (and most other residents) live, are at increased risk of displacement due to flooding (many areas of Lagos are below sea level) and lack of investment in the city’s drainage system. Urban flooding is also a problem for non-coastal cities as a result of increased rain associated with climate change coupled with ageing and decrepit urban infrastructure.


Similarly, in cities struck by earthquakes—such as Port-au -Prince (Haiti) or Kathmandu (Nepal)—the poorest areas are most affected because of lax or poorly-enforced construction regulations, and displacement lasts longer, and in some cases is permanent. Again, such areas tend to be populated with recent internal migrants and IDPs who moved due to other environmental and economic stresses. While disasters wreak massive economic damage, recovery depends on the urban and national response, and on how this response evolves over time. There is now a substantial body of research on when and whether city residents who are displaced return to their original areas or move away permanently.

Beirut blast

The long -term impact of the explosion that devastated Beirut in early August 2020, killing up to 200 people and leaving 300,000 homeless, will be felt not only by Lebanese citizens, but also by a large number of the 1.5 million Syrian and 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of whom are dependent on humanitarian aid. The dead included dozens of refugees, and many refugee families who lived in the industrial areas near the port where the blast took place saw their homes obliterated. According to an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the refugees “were already vulnerable, not just because of their situation as refugees but also because of the spiralling economic crisis and coronavirus crisis and measures that had impacted the whole country.”


Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted secondary urban migration on a vast scale. In India alone, more than 100 million migrant workers have had to return home, mostly from cities, after coronavirus measures left them jobless, or after landlords evicted them. UN human rights experts have criticised the Indian government for failing to address the migrants’ “dire humanitarian situation”, with many going hungry, lacking shelter and being subjected to police brutality. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Nepali labourers are stranded in Gulf states and keen to return to their home countries.

Reports that countries in many regions of the world are forcibly returning migrants as part of their responses to the pandemic led the UN Network on Migration to call in May 2020 for such practices to be suspended “in order to protect the health of migrants and communities, and uphold the human rights of all migrants, regardless of status.”


Deportations and detention of migrants or failed asylum seekers is an often- overlooked form of intra-city displacement. Some have argued that deportations should be seen as a form of forced migration. Establishing the global scale of deportations is not straightforward as statistics are not always readily available outside of Europe and the US, but some efforts have been made that reveal many hundreds of thousands are detained and removed each year, many but not all, from cities where they have attempted to settle, often irregularly.

Detentions and deportations occur in a wide variety of ways; some carefully following the national rule of law while others take place in an extra judicial manner that violate individual rights as well as international agreements. Examples are numerous and widespread, from the hundreds of thousands of forced deportations of Ethiopian migrants from Saudi cities since 2013, to Eritrean and Sudanese deportations from Israel in the last decade, to current reports of deportations of Tunisians from Italian cities to Tunis or of Afghans being deported from Greek cities back to Turkey. In 2020 the US also re-started direct flights from US cities to Mexico city for deported migrants and asylum seekers.

For some years in the US, the Trump administration has actively promoted extrajudicial approaches to deportation of migrants and asylum seekers as the most efficient way to deal with “illegal” immigration. This Review documents more extrajudicial and illegal (by national and international law) actions by state authorities in the overview of Normalisation of the Extreme.


Forced (and often secondary) displacement within or between cities, affecting IDPs, refugees and international migrants, is an often overlooked and under-studied topic within the field of mixed migration. However, it is a daily reality on the ground for many refugees and migrants arriving in, or transiting through, cities, as part of mixed migratory movements. Their situation should not only be understood better, but also be taken into account in urban policy planning and development as well as in humanitarian responses, especially since there is little evidence that the different causes of intra-urban secondary displacement—economic development, urban violence and conflict, climate-related disasters and deportations —will disappear any time soon. In fact, with predicted urban growth and expected impacts from climate change they are more likely to intensify. There is wide agreement amongst researchers and practitioners that increasing the resilience of urban neighbourhoods can mitigate at least the displacement consequences, potentially by reducing dislocation and displacement in the first place, but also by enabling previously displaced people to return.

Preventing the secondary displacement of international migrants and refugees may not be a priority for urban or national governments, who, if they are concerned at all, are likely to care more about about their own urban citizens and internal migrants. However, since international and internal migrants often live in the same neighbourhoods and informal settlements, addressing the issues that cause secondary displacement will benefit both citizens and non-citizen migrants and are de facto the responsibility of urban managers.