Urban Refugees and the Challenge of the Slums

Aisling O'Loghlen
Aisling O’Loghlen

35.8 million. This was the number of displaced people of concern to UNHCR in 2012, the second highest figure since records began in 1993. 1.4 billion. This is the number of people estimated to be living in slums worldwide by 2020, according to UN HABITAT (2006). If one considers the growing list of conflicts around the world such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic to name but a few, it is not difficult to extrapolate that in the coming years, more people are likely to become displaced. Many of these protracted refugee situations will develop into slum like situations in camps, whose harsh conditions often result in refugees fleeing to urban areas, where many once again end up in slums.

Assessing the vulnerability of refugee groups is a major obstacle for humanitarian actors in urban areas – potential beneficiaries are sometimes highly mobile, often inaccessible and strive to remain anonymous, while frequently integrated into existing slums and settlements dispersed across the city. The arrival and long-term settlement of displaced populations in cities requires in-depth understanding of their specific vulnerabilities in order to both meet their specific needs, and to ameliorate tensions with existing, frequently economically disadvantaged communities within an often unwelcoming urban context.

My research investigates the plight of urban refugees in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Tanzania is considered as one of the more stable countries in Sub – Saharan Africa, and currently boasts a GDP of 6.9% growth per annum. However the country still harbours a large population of urban slum dwellers, most of whom are concentrated in its largest city, Dar es Salaam. The city has a population of 4.4 million and a population growth rate of 5.8% percent between 2002 and 2012 (Andreasen, 2013), well above the national population growth rate of 2.9%. This explosive population increase has resulted in major challenges for urban planning, particularly in relation to housing provision.

Kibera slum in Nairobi, taken by Aisling O’Loghlen (July 2008)
Kibera slum in Nairobi, taken by Aisling O’Loghlen (July 2008)

The peri – urban expansion of the city has been phenomenal with new slums developing at a rapid rate to try and keep apace with population growth. Urbanisation has generally occurred in the more peripheral areas of the city, with 75% of the total population increase during the inter – censal period (2002 – 2012) occurring in wards located at least 10km from the city centre (Figure 1). Indeed Kombe (1994) notes that in 1980 the number of informal settlements in Dar totalled 25; today it numbers over 150.

The Tanzanian Government has introduced numerous programmes in an attempt to counteract rapid urbanisation and the continued burgeoning of slums, under the auspices of the Tanzanian Urban Land Management and Reform Project. Amongst these are the formalisation of unplanned areas through residential licenses (MKURABITA), and the 20,000 Plots Project. However with the current demand for urban plots in Dar es Salaam at 30,000 per annum and plot production averaging only 6,000 a year, it is evident that the projects to date have been only partly successful at best in providing land for housing to urban residents.

From the 1960 until the early 2000s, Tanzania was known as one of the most hospitable regions for hosting refugees in the world, hosting more refugees than any other African country in 2000, at a total of nearly 600,000 (Chaulia, 2003). In the seven years between 1993 and 2000, the country received some 1.5 million refugees, mostly those fleeing Rwanda, along with some Congolese and Burundian citizens. While many entered UNHCR camps in the west of the country, many more were drawn to Dar es Salaam, with its incentives of economic growth and the potential for anonymity. Today, there are still 263,000 refugees / asylum seekers under the care of UNHCR in Tanzania. However, public opinion has turned on the refugee population in recent years, with Tanzania declaring its policy to pursue becoming a ‘refugee free country’ in 2008 (Arevalo – Carpenter and Ruhundwa, 2011) and so refugees are often socially excluded and face discrimination and harassment when revealing their true identities.

The vulnerabilities of small groups of urban refugees have been documented by the NGO group Asylum Access in the city with only 3% of the interviewees in formal employment, and 18% reporting that employers who were aware of their refugee status exploited them by withholding wages and threatening to inform immigration authorities (Asylum Access, 2010). The economic situation of the refugees is also particularly difficult, with only 25% able to send at least one child to school. Harassment by authorities is commonplace with over 40% of participants having been arrested at least once for not having proper documentation. My research will seek to establish specifically how the urban planning system is responsive to the specific vulnerabilities of refugees and other residents of slums, using the asset accumulation framework pioneered by Caroline Moser (2007) to determine the varying levels of difficulties faced by the respective populations. My hope is this research will go some way towards informing policy for both urban slum dwellers and urban refugees in developing countries.

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