Urban internal displacement

Read our thematic series: "Unsettlement: urban displacement in the 21st century".

Context and main issues

Urban centres are increasingly becoming destinations for forcibly displaced people. While not a new phenomenon, the true scale of displacement to, within and between towns and cities is not well understood. Nor is the extent to which cities provide safe haven for the people who flee there, or the degree to which the displaced are able to integrate and establish new urban lives. It is often stated that between 60 to 80 percent of the internally displaced people live in urban areas compared to rural or camp settings. However, there is no data at a global level to support such statements.

In additional to filling data gaps, more qualitative evidence is needed. While case studies contain some evidence about the conditions of IDPs in cities and how urban systems adapt to host them, this is an aspect that needs further research. This includes urban dynamics such planning and infrastructure, local governance, and the socioeconomic aspects of host communities. There is a need for more in depth analysis to understand how city development plays a role in the dynamics of adaptation and integration of IDPs in urban areas.

Finally, there is growing recognition that humanitarian interventions in urban crises, disasters and complex emergencies have their limitations, and that increasing collaboration with municipal authorities will need to support existing urban systems rather than replacing them. Similarly, the need for improved data and evidence on the scale, scope and nature of urban internal displacement is understood. The causes and effects on other urban stressors and crises, and how displacement reshapes the city and contributes to urbanisation processes need to be brought into the core of analysis on how to mitigate and effectively respond to urban internal displacement.

Key research areas/work streams

The experience of an IDP will be shaped not only by the nature and duration of displacement, but also by the capacity of cities to absorb and support those displaced. An urban system’s ability to address existing displacement and reduce new and onward displacement gets shaped by a range of urban development processes and investment decisions, which in turn are impacted by the size and duration of displacement. Questions of numbers, experience, drivers and impacts of displacement in urban areas can be explored from two perspectives: on the one hand from the perspective of those displaced and on the other hand from the perspective of the city. Understanding urban displacement from both these perspectives requires quantitative and qualitative data and research.

To establish a global picture of urban internal displacement, IDMC conducts research across at least four areas:

  • Data: How many people are displaced in urban areas? What percentage of new displacements flow from rural to urban areas?

  • Drivers and triggers of urban displacement: What are the triggers and drivers that prompt and prolong urban displacement, and how do they play out against the backdrop of exponential urban growth in different countries?

  • IDPs and the city: How does displacement shape urban landscapes, and what challenges and opportunities does it present in terms of service provision and urban systems?

  • Cities and displacement: How do urban processes, growth and demographic and economic change shape displacement risk and affect those displaced?

Research partners:

IDMC has partnered with leading research institutions, experts and urban development and humanitarian policy networks to ensure high quality and policy-relevant research and analysis. Existing and future partners include MIT, IIED, UNHabitat, Global Alliance for Urban Crises, World Bank, IOM, IIHS.


Unsettlement: city of flight: new and secondary displacement in Mogadishu, Somalia. November 2018

Unsettlement: city of challenge and opportunity: employment and livelihoods for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Borno State (Nigeria). February 2018

Unsettlement: urban displacement in the 21st century (research agenda and call for partners). February 2018

Leaving no one behind: internal displacement and the new urban agenda. October 2016

Facing eviction: displaced urban women at increased risk. October 2015

Urban informal settlers displaced by disasters: challenges to housing responses. June 2015

Home sweet home: housing practices and tools that support durable solutions for urban idps. March 2015

Still at risk: the forced eviction of displaced people in urban afghanistan. February 2014

Sanctuary in the city?. December 2011

We are always looking to strengthen and expand partnerships. If you are interested in working with us, please contact us at vicente.anzellini@idmc.ch