How Charter Cities Can Create Better Refugee Responses - Blog Post

In a world with increasing numbers of forcibly displaced persons, charter cities provide one way to generate more effective responses to refugee movements while placing refugee and local community needs firmly at the center of local governance.

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How Charter Cities Can Create Better Refugee Responses

The statistics characterizing the state of global displacement are staggering. The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide increased by more than 35 million over the last ten years, rising from 43.3 million in 2009 to 80 million in 2020. That number represents the highest count on record by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of this figure, 26 million are recognized as refugees under UNHCR’s legal definition. Many more who are not recognized by UNHCR are considered de facto refugees or are asylum seekers who have not yet received a determination of refugee status. There is an urgent moral and practical need for sustainable policy responses that meet refugees’ needs, as well as those of the local communities and governments in the areas where they live.  

Durable solutions?

Despite the escalating incidence of forced migration, the international refugee regime’s overarching responses to displacement have arguably changed little in recent decades. Of the three ‘durable solutions’ that UNHCR advocates for refugees—voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, resettlement in a third country, or local integration through a pathway to citizenship in the country of asylum—repatriation and resettlement remain the preferred options for policymakers. National policymakers and international organizations alike tend to characterize refugee status as a temporary condition even though it is sadly often anything but. 

Most refugees (78%) are in what are known as protracted refugee situations, defined as circumstances in which a group of refugees from a given country are “living in exile” for five years or longer. Adding to the pressure of long-term exile are the extremely low rates of access to UNHCR’s durable solutions. The result is that tens of millions of refugees live in a state of permanent liminality year in and year out, unable to ‘return home’ or resettle in a third country and barred from formally integrating into the countries in which they live. Close to one quarter of them live in refugee camps.

Encamped refugees typically have few livelihood options, substandard qualities of life, and limited freedom of movement. UNHCR’s 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps reflects the negative outcomes of encampment for “all concerned.” Yet the international community’s failure to provide actual durable solutions means that what were supposed to be temporary, emergency refugee camps have too often become de facto long-term, urban settlements—in essence, instant cities—but without access to proper urban planning, effective governance and management, and adequate urban services. If these protracted settlements are the reality for a large proportion of refugees, policy must change to reflect this reality.

UNHCR is funded primarily by voluntary contributions from donor states and is consistently overstretched. UNHCR is also ill-equipped to provide long-term urban management services to people living in effectively permanent settlements. With 85% of refugees located in countries of the Global South, these host governments also have limited resources to meet the needs of refugees and local communities alike. De facto long-term encampment is not an acceptable response to these problems. This paper argues that the charter cities model should be applied to refugee responses—referred to as refugee charter cities for brevity’s sake. Refugee charter cities offer a promising alternative to the status quo.

Refugee Charter Cities

The implementation of refugee freedoms at the national level is more protective than at the subnational level, especially due to the need for refugees to have freedom of movement in order to access their rights in practice. However, such inclusive national policies have proven difficult to achieve in many cases. For example, the Refugee Work Rights initiative estimates that refugees only have a meaningful right to work in only two of 34 countries surveyed (Canada and Germany). When national changes are politically impossible, local governance reforms can provide immediate relief for refugees. The goal is to engage in a multi-level effort to improve refugee responses. Municipal jurisdictions can not only generate more robust rights access for refugees while national and international advocacy continues, but they can also produce a demonstration effect that encourages national governments to adopt wider-reaching policies in the future, as so-called sanctuary cities have often done within their national contexts.

The simplest definition of a charter city is “a city granted a special jurisdiction to create a new governance system.” In a charter city, certain regulations are untethered from national policy to allow more freedom to innovate; the driving purpose of a charter city is to create better governance “through deep regulatory and administrative reforms.” In the context of refugee responses, UNHCR alongside host governments, refugees, local communities, and urban developers would enter into public-private partnerships to establish good governance systems within the jurisdiction that are oriented toward effective urban management over the long-term: a necessary change from the more temporary-focused status quo of camps, as such a shift reflects the actual lived experience of refugees. These refugee charter cities would be open to all, in the spirit of promoting integration and free movement, and refugees would be able to work, own businesses, own property, create, and invent alongside other residents. In other words, charter cities would help operationalize the rights refugees have on paper through the 1951 Refugee Convention, but rarely have in practice.

Crucially, charter cities provide a means to formalize what is already happening in practice. Refugee camps from Kenya to Jordan have thriving informal economies that speak to the resilience and survival strategies of those who live in camps. Such economic activity, however, is inherently limited without formal protections. Charter cities can provide the benefits of legal protections and increased funding needed for refugees to live decent lives. Many refugees engage in entrepreneurship in the informal economy, but as critics of the overly romanticized ‘refugee entrepreneur’ trope point out, they often do so in the absence of other choices. Those who choose to be entrepreneurs would be better supported in charter cities, but other livelihoods options would include various types of formal wage-earning employment opportunities. Not to mention, giving refugees the right to work and start a business has spillover benefits for the host country. For example, in Uganda, where national policy allows refugees greater economic freedoms, 14% of employees in rural refugee-owned businesses were Ugandan nationals, and this number increased to 40% in the capital city of Kampala. 

Social and economic rights are only one part of a broader strategy to create just responses to forced displacement. They are an important one, however, as evidenced by the many survival strategies refugees employ. Far from imposing the top-down responses so often rightfully criticized by refugees and local communities, charter cities offer an opportunity to build bottom-up governance, economic opportunities, and sustainable development for all involved. Refugee-led initiatives are key to effective and accountable policy responses, and charter cities can facilitate such partnership among refugees, local communities, host governments, UNHCR, and the private sector. For the millions of refugees currently living in camps, such change is urgent. Over time, success at the local level can translate into broader relief at the national and international levels.


To read the full paper, please click here.