In many countries hosting large displaced populations, refugees are tolerated only if they consent to live in camps designated by the government. These may be open camps, which refugees can come and go more or less freely, or closed camps, where refugees are confined by physical or legal barriers.
Camp life can be harsh, characterized by poor standards of housing, sanitation, lack of adequate food, water, and medical facilities, a lack of security and, perhaps worst of all, enforced idleness and dependency. Refugees who chose not to live in camps or who fear to do so may be treated like escaped prisoners: subject to arrest, detention, forced return or even deportation. Even under more lenient regimes, refugees who do not live in camps are usually at best ignored, and are subject to neglect and exploitation. In those refugee hosting countries that have not established refugee camps, refugees typically subsist on the margins of society: tolerated, perhaps, as a source of cheap labor, but lacking access to legal status, legal employment, medical care, education and social services.
Jesuit Refugee Service provides a variety of aid to urban refugees, but perhaps the most important of these is education. "Education provides hope," says Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J., the International Director of JRS.
"And there is a clear request expressed by refugees themselves: give us courses, like computer courses for example, or sewing, that we can earn some money. Education helps people to survive in an urban setting, to get involved in the market, to upgrade their capacities in order not to be" those who are the lowest paid workers.
Urban refugees were not the focus at the very beginning of the Jesuit Refugee Service – which celebrates this year 30 years of service and accompaniment. At that time the classic image of refugees was the camp but the reality is now that half of the world’s refugees attended by the UNHCR are living in urban areas.
The Iraq crisis tipped the statistic to 50 percent when in 2006-2007 over a million, close to two million refugees, arrived in Syria and in Jordan and all staying in the urban centres. JRS started already in the nineties to get gradually involved in the work with urban refugees.
There are also urban refugees here in Rome and in many cities in Europe. In Rome for the past 30 years has been the Centro Astalli, which started in 1981 as a response to the refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea.