Toward a City-zenship Approach to Urban Refugees
There is growing evidence that the distinction between individuals tagged with the “refugee” label and other vulnerable groups is often slim, particularly in urban contexts. Indeed, most urban refugees live in dilapidated and precarious urban neighborhoods that they share with impoverished nationals, migrant workers, and other vulnerable population groups. As conflicts extend, many of these refugees do not benefit from substantive assistance. Instead, they share the “stigma” of the “outsider” with other international migrants who reside in the same neighborhoods. Worse, both are frequently competing over the same employment opportunities while suffering from similar legal discrimination that stigmatizes their presence and/or work as “illegal” and consequently exposes them to higher risks.
Meanwhile, the dismantlement of the welfare state and consequent withdrawal of public services that could privilege nationals also reduces differences between those who benefit from a legal citizenship status and those who are treated as “outsiders”, eventually lumping all these vulnerable population groups into the category of “residents of dilapidated urban areas.”
These observations raise important questions for those interested in contemporary refugee responses. Is it time to reconsider the dominant nationalist fiction that has guided targeted humanitarian refugee responses on the basis of citizenship? Can we instead adopt the premise that large-scale forced population movements such as those witnessed recently in Syria and neighboring countries are generating a challenge that is better answered through the language of urban city-zenship that disregards national belonging and instead favors responses targeting particular urban quarters? Should refugee responses at least partially be focused on the revision of urban policymaking and support for a targeted “neighborhood-based” approach that seeks to upgrade dilapidated neighborhoods instead of targeting vulnerable individuals?
I argue that in Lebanon, particularly in the five large-scale urban centers where the majority of Syrian refugees—and, more generally, the majority of vulnerable urban populations—dwell, a neighborhood-based approach that pulls together scattered, piecemeal interventions into a holistic, multi-sectoral neighborhood upgrading strategy, has the potential to bring about positive economic, social, and political outcomes for multiple vulnerable population groups and the cities where they dwell. Such an approach would integrate the efforts of the assemblage of local and international actors who currently conduct refugee response projects as part of coordinated interventions that shift ongoing support from individuals or buildings to dilapidated neighborhoods through participatory strategies that prioritize local livability and employment generation. Furthermore, building on earlier informal settlement upgrading strategies, these projects could help patch up the main fractures between refugees and local populations.
Why is a neighborhood-based approach that responds to the “refugee crisis” by upgrading degraded neighborhood an adequate response? Consider the following.
First, Lebanon’s patterns of refugee settlement resemble in every aspect the global trend of refugees settling in urban areas rather than in camps. In fact, five years into the crisis, funding has considerably dwindled and most refugees are forced to rely on their labor to survive, precipitating their movement to cities where they rent rooms, makeshift spaces, or apartments in so-called “urban slums” they share with other vulnerable social groups (e.g. Palestinian refugees, foreign migrant workers, and low-income Lebanese). Hence, it is possible to target refugees in well-identified, precarious neighborhoods.
Second, a neighborhood-upgrading approach empirically recognizes the absence of sound national housing policies and compensates by investing in better livelihoods for vulnerable social groups, including refugees. Given that the Lebanese economy is heavily invested in real estate speculation, provides only marginal safety nets for vulnerable families, and depends heavily on cheap, unprotected labor, it is likely that precarious settlements will continue to form the only affordable housing option for most vulnerable groups. These neighborhoods have, however, suffered disproportionately negative consequences in the ongoing refugee crisis. In the absence of mechanisms of land acquisition that could horizontally increase the supply of housing, accommodations are being provided by vertical building densification: Dividing existing apartments, adding floors, sharing spaces in higher levels of crowding.
Predictably, the consequences are individual hardship for households in these neighborhoods as building services crumble. Also, there is a downward spiraling trend for entire neighborhoods where failing infrastructure has constituted a challenge, even prior to the refugee crisis. In Lebanon, where neighborhood upgrading interventions in the forms articulated in most other countries of the Global South have never been introduced, the effects of the densification are even more severe than described elsewhere. In this context, a neighborhood upgrading approach that improves collective infrastructure and invests in shared facilities has a good chance of significantly improving the health and living conditions of all neighborhood dwellers.
Third, a neighborhood-upgrading approach is expected to bring positive economic benefits to vulnerable communities. Physical upgrading entails investments in individual apartments, buildings, and neighborhood projects, all of which create work opportunities within the sectors where Syrian refugees (and other vulnerable social groups) have traditionally worked. There is again evidence that in addition to Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and the poorest Lebanese groups have suffered disproportionately from the refugee crisis, particularly in the loss of employment on which they survive.
A well- formulated, neighborhood-upgrading approach may also provide incentives for the formation of local small-scale rehabilitation enterprises by neighborhood dwellers who would undertake upgrading projects. Within this framework, it will be important to introduce regulations to encourage the recirculation of wage money in a specific area by incentivizing local businesses and preventing further transformations of the housing stock into assets owned by outsiders. Ultimately, if neighborhood upgrading approaches integrate with these physical interventions and other social programs (e.g., training, schooling, healthcare), they are likely to set in motion positive economic cycles with positive, long-term benefits for refugees.
Finally, a neighborhood upgrading approach has the potential to reduce heightened tensions between vulnerable social groups exposed to severe hardship and competing over mere survival. In the past two years, targeted interventions from international organizations have left those without such support (e.g., migrant workers, unsupported refugees, poor Lebanese) bitter at perceived discrimination against themselves, namely that refugees are receiving support they are denied. Targeted interventions further fostered an environment of competition and abuse under which landlords have demanded higher rents (exposing everyone to higher vulnerability) and ultimately fostered negative tensions among groups. Investments that instead address neighborhoods holistically and create work opportunities in recognition of a shared hardship have the potential to use spatial planning as an opportunity to create a shared sense of a common good among dwellers, more relation/attachment to place, and other proved positive factors.
What would a neighborhood upgrading approach entail?
A neighborhood upgrading approach would begin with a participatory assessment of living conditions in areas of high density that bring together, in addition to representative members of multiple vulnerable groups, municipal authorities, public service and planning agencies, local associations, international donors and relief agencies, and other actors involved in supporting directly or indirectly the dwellers of a neighborhood to form local neighborhood committees and establish an inclusive planning process under which agencies have some leeway to engage in “developmental activities” as a form of “crisis response.”
Second, a neighborhood upgrading approach should aim for the improvement of shared/common spaces and the reorganization of regulatory frameworks through which access to basic needs (e.g. access to housing, work, school) is occurring. In this context, it is imperative to favor direct investments in shared infrastructure (e.g. water, electricity, sewer, public spaces) through projects that generate employment opportunities for workers while upgrading living conditions.
In addition, a neighborhood upgrading approach will require the establishment of a local legal official and representation of public agencies (e.g. municipalities) to enforce a locally-designed regulatory framework that organizes contractual agreements (e.g. rental agreements, work agreements) to reduce abuses and injustices.
Finally, recent research has shown that an area-based approach can only be successful if linked to wider city or regional plans and policies, by expanding the role of municipalities and regional authorities in conceptualizing linkages and relations between precarious neighborhoods and other areas of cities.
In closing, an area-based approach may turn the ongoing challenge of refugee housing and ensuing crises into an opportunity to address long-term, endemic challenges in Lebanese cities by embracing the urban planning framework direly missing in our country. This is not a given, particularly as considerations of national citizenship assumed in the introduction of this approach are far from accepted in Lebanon but it nonetheless offers an opportunity for a more informed, hopeful urban refugee and urban politics.
Photo: Syrian refugees living in a housing compound in Sidon, Lebanon a compound housing Syrian refugees in Sidon, Lebanon, February 2016. Source: Ali Hishisho / Reuters.
 Mona Fawaz, “Planning and the refugee crisis: Informality as a framework of analysis and reflection.” Planning Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2017), pp. 99–115, at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1473095216647722.
 UNHCR estimates that about half refugees live in protracted conditions. See UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance,” at: http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.
 This approach has emerged recently among UNHCR and other agencies under the label of an “area-based approach.” I chose to retain “urban upgrading” explicitly to link the proposal to the long tradition in planning practice of intervening in so-called informal settlements to improve livability and sometimes clarify and regularize tenure.
 UNHCR and UN-Habitat, 2014.
 Assaf Dahdah, Habiter la Ville Sans Droits: Les Travailleurs Migrants dans les Marges de Beyrouth, PhD dissertation at Aix-Marseille Université(2015), at: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01446255/document, abstract (in English) at: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01446255/.