Providing shelter in urban Iraq: Where the displaced meet the poor

As displaced people increasingly head for cities, humanitarian actors have started providing shelter solutions for them alone. Here's why that won't work — and also what would.
Refugees in a camp in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Increasingly, displaced families are heading to cities -- prompting major housing concerns. (Melih Cevdet Teksen/Shutterstock)

A key characteristic of Iraq’s most recent wave of displacement, mostly internal but including refugees from Syria, is its urban nature. Of the 3.1 million internally displaced people in Iraq recorded since 2014, 78 percent have flocked mainly into cities or their outlying areas around the country.

In situations of such major population movement, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, displaced households have almost always preferred to find a place of their own in cities and towns. After all, this opens up the prospect of greater opportunities for themselves, as well as connection with their extended family networks. Households typically make such a decision regardless of the hardship it may entail, including a lack of adequate housing or the risk it may place on peaceful co-existence with host communities.

Yet the responses by governments and humanitarian actors in urban areas have been piecemeal at best, often unsatisfactory to the displaced and host communities alike. In part this is due to the complexity of identifying vulnerable populations in an urban environment. But in part, the problem is also a failure to target the root causes of housing problems that are exacerbated by displacement.

In the past, government and humanitarian groups tended to respond to major displacement by establishing camps and providing support there. Despite the increasing prevalence of urban displacement, the international community only recently began to shift strategy to start providing relief in urban settings. The U. N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, first endorsed such a strategy in Iraq and elsewhere in 2014.

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

This change comes from growing understanding of two points. First, camps are an expensive response that tend to create heavy dependence, prone to becoming permanent fixtures as displacement perpetuates. And second, urban displacement and migration also have positive effects, including bolstering economic activity and skills that, in turn, are available to the urban areas to which people move.

Against this backdrop, some programmes are now promoting urban shelter solutions on a small scale. Some of these include, for example, “cash-for-rent” initiatives, which entail providing temporary cash assistance to displaced families with the condition that they use the funds for paying rent. Others seek to offer financial incentives for a host community to refurbish houses or build additional space to house displaced families or refugees.

For the most part, such solutions seem to be more cost-effective and realistic than large encampments. So, with more than 2 million people recently displaced in cities in Iraq, one may ask: Why not invest in larger urban housing solutions appropriate to the scale of displacement?

White elephants

Iraq — and especially the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, where we have spent significant time analyzing the consequences of urban displacement — is full of “white elephants”. These are the skeletons of large public or private buildings originally planned as luxury housing complexes or offices. Construction on many started as a result of the 2007 oil boom but was subsequently abandoned, with developers facing the country’s deep economic crisis coupled with the ongoing armed conflict.

“Urban displacement solutions should not only be for the displaced but must take a comprehensive area-based approach, to make the right to shelter accessible to everybody.”

The sudden disappearance of high-priced real estate has left huge swathes of constructed space available and inhabitable — this while housing for low-income families is scarce, as nearly 60 percent of the country’s displaced are living with other families. Further, demand for housing is high, evictions are on the rise, and many host communities are sceptical of renting to displaced households.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

Any one of the “white elephant” projects could house several dozen displaced families if a deal was reached with developers and financial support given to properly adapt it. This would create something of settlement in the urban environment, where families are hosted in flats with the same basic standards they would receive living in a tent in a displacement camp. They would not only get subsidized rent for a set time but also the benefits of being in a city, including improved access to services and better livelihoods.

This not only would be a benefit for displaced populations but could serve as a boost for local economies, with these families consuming goods and acquiring services. Some attempts have been made in Iraq in this regard, and in Turkey efforts are underway to set up whole new towns from scratch to host refugees.

Using Iraq’s “white elephant” buildings in this way is an enticing idea. Yet it is our contention that such an approach, which may look good on paper, would fail in practice, at least in Iraq. There are several reasons for this conclusion.

“White elephants” dot the skyline in Erbil and elsewhere in Iraq, the result of developers pulling out of Iraq after the country’s economy sank after 2013. (Social Inquiry)

First, there are the obvious challenges in replacing all of the NGO-provided services in camps with local public services in a setting where existing gaps in provision already cause strain on the host community, the influx of displaced people notwithstanding.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

Beyond these material concerns, there is reason to doubt that such a strategy would work, for a simple reason: While granting the right to shelter to fleeing families, this would be an imposed solution to displacement that does not take into account the needs of all residents, new and old.

In fact, there is evidence from Iraq that host communities overwhelmingly do not want to shelter displaced families in their cities and towns, much less have them as neighbours. In part, these sentiments are linked to lack of trust toward newly arriving populations relating to deep-seated historical grievances.

This reluctance also stems from perceived unfairness in the way aid is provided. Host communities frequently say they feel excluded and recount receiving little to no help when they themselves were displaced decades earlier.

And, of course, this tendency not to want to shelter displaced families also has to do with basic concerns over competition for services and livelihoods, with fears of demographic change on ethno-religious grounds, and with simple security concerns.

[See: Who’s really left behind in today’s most dangerous cities?]

Note that many of these reasons are familiar: They are nearly identical to those that Europeans and Americans have brandished when setting up extremely limited refugee policies. When expressing these sentiments, host communities in Iraq have also stated that their preferred solution would be to put displaced families far away from the city, in camps, so that they do not need to interact with this group. Needless to say, that’s both an unkind and impractical solution when services are already scarce and tensions are high.

Creating towers of displaced populations within urban areas also could generate further marginalization in material and social terms, as they would serve to further entrench demographic pockets in these areas. Establishing enclaves is at odds with promoting a sense of community across different groups — a necessity when moving toward more durable and lasting solutions to displacement that benefit whole communities, not just individuals.

Needs of all residents

Still, finding an answer to this complex problem is not a matter of disregarding entirely the idea of using unfinished housing for public good. Rather, the key is in reframing their use: We need to look at these structures not as a solution to urban displacement but to overarching urban poverty.

What does this mean in practice? In part, it would mean implementing shelter or housing programmes and supporting authorities in their housing or urban regeneration policies that benefit all inhabitants of a targeted area — independent of their origin or status. This approach would entail opening up such programming to host community members who are poor and would benefit from subsidized public housing, cash-for-rent initiatives, or from turning these unfinished building blocks to public-private low-income housing.

[See: U. N. summit on migration crisis fails to address front-line role of cities]

It also implies that not all displaced families should be targeted with aid. This would be particularly important if a large proportion of host community households in a given area are particularly vulnerable — thus reducing their capacity to take in additional populations. Creating such systems to bring down poverty levels and allow all people to have adequate housing would benefit the entire population — displaced or not, whether they receive the aid or not.

This is an important broader conclusion: Urban displacement solutions should not only be for the displaced but must take a comprehensive area-based approach, to make the right to shelter accessible to everybody. And shelter is but one area that needs to be reframed within urban humanitarian responses. Livelihoods promotion, community mobilization and public services provision also need to take this into account.

All of this calls for a shift in thinking that puts displacement within, rather than separate from, the continuum of urban dynamics. A new such approach must have at its centre the attainment of the rights of all people, non-discrimination of all people and the alleviation of poverty of all people.

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Roger Guiu

Roger Guiu is a co-founder and researcher with Social Inquiry, a small research organization currently based in Erbil, Iraq, working to incite policies and praxis that build civic trust and repair social fabric in fragile communities. An economist by training, his work centres on reconciling development with social change.

Nadia Siddiqui

Nadia Siddiqui is a co-founder and researcher with Social Inquiry, a small research organization currently based in Erbil, Iraq, working to incite policies and praxis that build civic trust and repair social fabric in fragile communities. Her work focuses on the intersections of cultural practice, social dynamics and justice.