By Samer Saliba and Helen Elizabeth Yu, Mayors Migration Council
Most refugees live in cities, which should come as no surprise, considering over half the world’s population now resides in urban areas, driven by an increasing demographic shift away from agrarian livelihoods, particularly in regions affected by forced displacement.
Without housing and adequate basic services, it is nearly impossible for a new urban resident to stay safe and healthy, find and maintain a job, and keep their kids in school, not to mention move beyond their basic needs. Yet one of the greatest barriers that migrants and refugees face in urban areas is finding secure and affordable housing. Both the cost of housing and the legal paperwork (often itself a huge cost) typically required to secure a formal lease are hugely prohibitive to foreign-born nationals, particularly those without regular status or the means to pay for it.
In Colombia, a country that has welcomed more than two million Venezuelan migrants and refugees due to one of the world’s largest displacement crises, the City of Medellín alone hosts over 190,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Recent surveys conducted through 4Mi Cities: Data Collection on Urban Mixed Migration indicate that 75 percent of migrants and refugees in the city pay for housing on a monthly basis. If these percentages hold true for the whole displaced population in Medellín, more than 25,000 people either rely on extended social networks, NGOs, or faith-based organizations for shelter, or do not have a roof over their heads on a regular basis. Moreover, 73 percent of all respondents reported relying on verbal housing agreements rather than formal ones. In other words, nearly every migrant and refugee in Medellín may either have precarious housing tenure or no secure housing at all.
Whereas camp settings are centered on housing, international humanitarian actors can’t set up tents in the middle of a city. Nor should they. It is the role of city governments to provide safe and adequate housing for all their residents, including refugees. They just need the resources to do so.
Without adequate resources, housing a growing population is a tall order for most cities that already struggle to ensure market-rate housing is available. Nevertheless, many cities are doing their best to provide the minimum necessities for newcomers to re-establish themselves.
With financial and technical support from the Mayors Migration Council’s Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees (GCF), the City of Medellín is going beyond the bare minimum. Using catalytic investment from the GCF in 2021, Medellín established a robust program of assistance for migrants and refugees centered on giving migrant and refugee families three months of safe and secure transitional housing. While the city’s Línea 123 Social (Social Hotline 123) was originally designed to offer emergency assistance to anyone in a situation of risk, the city soon determined that the majority of housing requests were coming from migrants, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). To address the specific needs of these communities, Medellín leveraged the GCF to expand the housing component of Línea 123 Social, Auxilio Habitacional transitorio (Transitional Housing Assistance), to include migrants and refugees. Further, the city made housing the entry point for these families to access a holistic suite of essential services, such as legal support for processing asylum claims and job training and placement. In one year, Medellín has housed 310 migrant and refugee families — over 1,200 people. Half of them are under the age of 14.
The City cites time as one of the critical factors contributing to the early successes of the GCF in Medellín. Doris Manco, GCF program lead under Medellín’s Secretariat for Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights, emphasized:
“There must be an immediate solution, and this is an immediate solution that helps families do more than meet their immediate needs. If housing is not addressed, other needs can’t be addressed. A lot of other cities have shelter solutions, but what we’re doing is to help families live in a protective environment that helps them meet their other needs… it’s more sustainable and easier to finance for us as a city because it helps connect people with jobs, which helps them sustain paying for their own housing.”
In addition to being both city-led and immediate – call the 123 Social Line and city staff will pick you up off the street and bring you to a housing location – the program offers people with nowhere else to go three months of free housing. Housing typologies include hotels, shared houses retrofitted to accommodate between 8 and 10 families, and inquilinatos, private rooms provided to families with shared kitchen and laundry facilities on the same floor of a hotel. These arrangements, which offer privacy while maintaining a communal spirit, provide migrants and refugees with a home base for an assured period of time, offering adults a much-needed runway to find work and place their children in school while securing a more long-term home.
Over 75 percent of families who participated in Medellín’s housing assistance program went on to find more permanent housing on their own. Additionally, many participants were not only interested in staying in the inquilinatos at the end of their time with the program, but were also able to pay their own rent. This was only possible through the city’s active role in:
- Identifying dignified housing in locations within proximity to social services and jobs
- Negotiating the terms of stay with property owners
- Creating nurturing living conditions within inquilinatos and shared housing units
- Connecting migrants and refugees with specific legal, medical, social, and job-training services depending on their needs
- Offering means of transport to services that were not within walking distance
- Establishing coordination mechanisms with over 18 local and international service providers, such as UNHCR, IOM and World Vision, to bridge service gaps
As inherent multi-taskers, cities are uniquely positioned to achieve this kind of success. Given their mandate, local knowledge, and access, city governments like Medellín’s have a unique ability to adapt existing housing and outreach programs, tie these programs to wrap-around services such as employment assistance and legal aid, and coordinate with international and local partners to maximize their impact. While the city’s funding is international, their action is local. For cities around the world to demonstrate similar success in protecting the housing rights of their migrant and refugee communities, international humanitarian and development actors should resource local governments to strengthen their existing housing programs and buy more time to help migrants and refugees find what they’re looking for: a home.