Last Updated: Monday, 23 May 2016, 07:53 GMT

Côte d'Ivoire: Urban displaced slip into obscurity

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 29 September 2008
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Côte d'Ivoire: Urban displaced slip into obscurity, 29 September 2008, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

DAKAR, 29 September 2008 (IRIN) - People who flee to cities because of conflicts or natural disasters tend to become invisible to the authorities and organisations that can help them, says US-based Tufts University and the Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

The Tufts University and IMDC study researched the specific protection needs of the urban displaced in Sudan's Khartoum, Colombia's Santa Marta, and Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire.

Lost in the crowd

As opposed to rural displacements in which communities are more likely to move in groups and to enclosed camps, in cities, "people often arrive in individual [family] units and can become lost?many of them will not have friends or family connections, and will not know where to go," said urban risk lecturer Dr. Mark Pelling of King's College in London. "As a result, they can become invisible to those in power," said Pelling.

The rough realties of these internally displaced (IDPs) may also be unknown to humanitarians, who often know very little about them. "We realised we have no good data at all on IDPs in urban sites," IDMC's West Africa country analyst Marzia Montemurro told IRIN.


In Cote d'Ivoire after civil war broke out in 2002, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, fled from conflict-affected regions to the cities of Abidjan, Grand Bassam and Yamoussoukro. According to the report, up to 440,000 displaced people remain in the capital, Abidjan.

These IDPs were found to be less likely to have a birth certificate than those who have lived long-term in Abidjan, a document that is key to establish one's right to live in a place and to claim services, according to the report.

"These differences suggest IDPs are more vulnerable ? they experience more structural insecurity and find it harder to lay claim to their rights as citizens," Karen Jacobsen, author of the Tufts/IMDC report, writes.

The question of who is and who is not Ivorian was a contributing factor to the 2002 civil war in Cote d'Ivoire, with the ?Forces Nouvelles' rebel group accusing the government of discriminating against Ivorian Muslims and those of foreign origin, for many whom it was difficult to obtain nationality or land rights.

Since September 2007 initiatives have been underway to identify Ivorians and put them on the electoral roll so they can vote in the repeatedly-postponed presidential elections, now scheduled to take place in late November 2008.

For lecturer Pelling, the problem is many rural dwellers never formalised their citizenship. "In a city you tend to need land rights to have citizenship in any way. So if you end up squatting on rented land and don't have access to formal government networks that you might have done in a rural area, your citizenship rights risk getting further weakened," he told IRIN.

Exploitative labour

In a city you cannot survive long without money, whereas in rural areas people may get hold of enough water, food or building materials through working on someone's land, or other informal work, says Pelling. As a result, he says the pressure to find work immediately is very high.

According to a November 2007 Save the Children study of displaced children in Abidjan, displaced 10-14 year old girls often work as waitresses in bars or nightclubs where they are more easily sexually exploited, according to Joanna Macveigh, a protection adviser at Save the Children.

"Cities provide the kind of networks that draw young girls into something they can make a living out of very quickly," Macveigh said, "the more opportunities there are for girls to get an immediate income through, say sex work, the more likely it is to be a force for disaster in these girls lives."

The law offers these girls little comfort ? rather than protecting them, the police often used intimidation and violence against them, the girls reported.

IDMC's Montemurro told IRIN Abidjan-based IDPs are more likely to experience government harassment, the demolition of their housing, and sporadic attacks, than long-term residents. They were also more likely than non-IDPs to be unemployed.

The flip side

Cities can give better access to basic services such as healthcare, education, social workers and local authorities, which can leave urban IDPs better off than their rural counterparts, all interviewees concurred.

But Pelling is quick to point out the underlying reality of city living. "60 percent of the developing world's population lives in un-serviced, informal settlements, so access to clean water, schools and healthcare simply does not exist for them."

Further, he pointed out that rather than settling in large capitals, the majority move to towns with 500,000 people or less. "These local urban centres which have low capacity when it comes to services and government resources. And because they have smaller populations, they are more likely to be overwhelmed by large numbers of incoming migrants," he pointed out.

Programming challenges

Christine Knudsen, IDP protection adviser at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) displacement and protection support unit in Geneva told IRIN it is hard to serve displaced populations, no matter where they are.

"It is hard for us to work with displaced populations that aren't camp-based. How do we address host populations in cities? How do we differentiate between the needs of the urban displaced and the urban poor? How do we target our aid?" Knudsen pointed out.

In cities where IDPs and host communities live side-by-side, it is important to target poor urban communities as a whole rather than IDPs specifically as this can raise tensions, says Jacobsen.

"[Good] relations can be jeaporadised when aid agencies target economic resources such as food aid, microcredit and vocational training exclusively at IDPs." When agencies do address IDPs in particular, they should focus specifically on redressing displacement-driven losses such as legal certification or identity documents, to "level the playing field."

Right to visibility

For Save the Children's Macveigh, the starting point is to reach out to IDPs in urban settings so they know their rights. "People have a right to legal identity under international law and they need to be aware of that?then they can make an informed choice as to whether or not they want to identify themselves."

UNOCHA and the IDMC are currently developing IDP profiling guidelines, which it is hoped will better identify the needs and vulnerabilities of urban-based IDPs. "IDPs in cities pose a new aid response dynamic, and we need to delve into it more," said Knudsen.

And some see urban as opposed to rural displacement as an opportunity to explore new ways of working. Amelia Bookstein, head of humanitarian policy at Save the Children told IRIN "Cities always reinvent themselves, depending on the opportunities that arise [for IDPs]?it is a more interesting story than the doomsayers lay claim."


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