Urban Refugees


Towns and cities are quickly becoming the main sites of humanitarian response. This research project seeks to understand the phenomenon of refugees in urban settings across Jordan, Lebanon and Malaysia, in a comparative examination of their experiences as contrasted with those of other urban residents. It builds on previous research conducted by the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) on Iraqi refugees in Amman and Cairo, funded by the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration in the US State Department as an exploratory study. The current research examines the needs and experiences of various groups of urban refugees and internally displaced persons, and their access in comparison with local hosts, to health care, education, livelihoods, shelter, food security and physical security.

Urban refugees’ capacity for self-reliance is often severely constrained, with restrictions placed on their right to work and on their entitlements to critical forms of social support. Those coming from rural areas may be at a higher risk of impoverishment and marginalization if they lack the skills needed to operate successfully in an alien urban environment but even those coming from urban areas in their own countries can face problems. Because many of the urban refugees do not receive assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they face challenges that include economic hardship, insecure legal status, inadequate access to resources and services in their host countries. Access to education may be limited by unaffordable school fees, uniforms, books and other school materials, or by excessively time-consuming and unsafe transportation. At the same time, the refugees often pose an economic burden on the already strained health, education and other services in the host countries, particularly those in the Global South.

Determining the appropriate level of assistance can be complicated, however, since refugees often live in neighborhoods with marginalized local populations that are also in need of greater attention. Many of these challenges encountered by urban refugees are similar to – and largely inter-dependent on – those facing other vulnerable groups within urban areas. Coping strategies are often similar as well, creating the potential for both cooperation and competition between displaced and local groups. Thus, the plight of the urban displaced must not be treated in isolation but is best addressed in the broader context of the urban poor.


Jordan and Lebanon (2013/2014)

In May and June 2013, a research team from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) and the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), Dr. Rochelle Davis and Abbie Taylor, traveled to Jordan and Lebanon for one month, where they spent time in towns and cities, including Amman, Beirut, Irbid, Mafraq, and Sur. A field report (September 2013) detailed the team's findings on the experiences of refugees from Syria and host communities, while an article published in FMR 47 focused on the issue of young Syrian men fleeing conscription. In December 2014, the team returned to Jordan to conduct additional with refugee populations in Amman and Irbid. Forthcoming publications, based on more than 200 interviews, will be published in late 2015.

Malaysia (2013)

Dr. Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Avie Azis MSFS ’08 spent time in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia conducting field research. They successfully trained seven research assistants, representing the Chin and Daai Burmese, Iranian, and Sri Lankan refugee communities as well as the urban poor, in research ethics and interviewing techniques. While the research assistants conducted household interviews, Dr. Gozdziak and Ms. Aziz interviewed stakeholders and conducted group discussions with the Rohingya refugees.

Click here to access Dr. Gozdziak's blog posts from the research trip, which provide a snapshot of the field work.



Gender, conscription, protection, and the war in Syria

Rochelle Davis, Abbie Taylor and Emma Murphy (September 2014)

This article, published in Forced Migration Review 47, examines the challenges endured by men who remain inside Syria and the obstacles faced by others who choose to remove themselves from the fighting by fleeing the country. These struggles demonstrate a need to redefine classic conceptions of vulnerability and to consider civilian men and their needs as part of a solution rather than a problem.  

Click here for the full report. 


Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon: A Snapshot from Summer 2013

Rochelle Davis and Abbie Taylor (September 2013)

This report, based upon research designed to be ethnographic and outside of the capital cities, emphasizes two obvious but often overlooked human elements of the crisis: the impact of the Syrian presence in villages, towns, and cities on the host populations of Jordan and Lebanon; and refugees’ perceptions of their future, the prospect of return, and their role in rebuilding their country. As the number of Syrians displaced outside Syria exceeds two million and a protracted emergency situation continues well into its third year, this report underlines that the only lasting solution to such large-scale displacement, like previous displacement crises in the region, is a durable political solution to end the violence and insecurity inside Syria. In the meantime, donors, governments, and local and international humanitarian and development actors must work with refugees and host communities to formulate locally crafted interim solutions that not only alleviate suffering but allow for lives of individuals to continue with the dignity they so deserve. Forthcoming publications will focus more on refugees’ visions of the future and return, based partly on some 130 in-depth interviews by 26 volunteer researchers from refugee and local populations in Jordan and Lebanon.

Click here for the full report. Click here for the appendix.

What Do You Miss Most? Syrian Refugees Respond
Rochelle Davis and Abbie Taylor (December 2013)

A collection of statements and photographs on what refugees from Syria in Jordan and Lebanon miss from their homes. View them on Jadaliyya.

Teaching About Refugees, the Refugee Experience in Amman, Jordan: A Participatory Video Project
Grace Benton and Rochelle Davis (December 2013)

Grace reflects on her work with refugees in Amman, and the importance of teaching high school students about the lives of refugees. For the complete narrative, click here. All of the teaching materials—videos and sample lesson plans—are available online. Click here to view and download.


As part of the exploratory study on urban refugees in Amman and Cairo, funded by the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration; ISIM and CCAS published the following in-depth reports in 2012, all of which are available for download.

Rochelle Davis (with the assistance of Abbie Taylor), Urban Refugees in Amman (November 2012) View here

Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Alissa Walter, Urban Refugees in Cairo (November 2012) View here

Susan Martin and Abbie Taylor, Urban Refugees in Amman: Mainstreaming of Healthcare (November 2012) View here