Daily Archives: May 10, 2012

From shelter to housing: New NRC report on tenure security and displacement

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) just released a substantial study I wrote for them on the right to security of tenure and how it relates to interim shelter needs and long-term durable solutions for both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). It is a long read, but I would recommend it to those interested in these topics as my most comprehensive attempt to date to articulate the legal and policy dynamics of this important emerging area of humanitarian practice.

The background analysis in the study picks up on themes I developed earlier with regard to Liberia (also for the NRC), as well as Serbia (for the Brookings Institution) and Iraq (for the US Institute of Peace). These include the need for humanitarian actors to continue their engagement with both human rights and development discourses related to access to housing and security of tenure. The nexus with human rights emerges clearly from the moment of displacement, given the increasing trend (as reflected in the Sphere Standards) toward aligning humanitarian shelter provision with the human right to adequate housing. In accordance with commonly accepted understandings of this right, this means that even transitional shelter should meet basic standards of adequacy and be provided in a manner that ensures an appropriate level of tenure security to its occupants.

Meanwhile, the nexus with development standards relates to the insight that an increasing number of both refugees and IDPs find themselves in situations of protracted displacement. As a result (and as described in my earlier study on Serbia), measures to provide interim shelter solutions for displaced persons may quickly take on a de facto permanent character, and should often be planned with this eventuality in mind. This implies that pro-poor urban development standards (such as those developed by UN-HABITAT) should be applied wherever possible to allow the community-driven upgrading of IDP and refugee settlements. It also implies that development standards regarding involuntary resettlement should complement human rights standards in guaranteeing legal security of tenure for the displaced.

In the current NRC study, the case studies chosen related to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as well as IDPs in Georgia. Application of the relevant standards on tenure security is difficult in both cases, but for entirely different reasons. In the case of Lebanon, refugees do not (unlike IDPs) enjoy a right to seek local integration as a durable solution. However, the particular political sensitivities in Lebanon have led to a situation in which efforts to prevent local integration have led to restrictions in areas such as access to housing that cannot easily be reconciled with the country’s international obligations.

In the case of Georgian IDPs, there has been a determined and ambitious effort to facilitate integration in a manner that does not foreclose the eventual possibility of property restitution and return. However, significant complications have arisen in part because this program has been aligned with a broader attempt to privatize state-owned property. This has led to some some difficulties in a program to allow IDPs to buy the shelter allotted to them in buildings subject to privatization as well as questions regarding what can be done for the large proportion of IDPs still sheltered in private accommodation.

It is important to recognize the initiative of the NRC, and particularly its Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) program, in driving these issues forward. The ICLA program has in many respects led the way in terms of seeking effective property remedies for the displaced in the field, and have now pivoted quickly to address new concerns related to tenure security where such remedies are not forthcoming. As always, I benefited a great deal from the insights and hospitality of my NRC colleagues while preparing this report, and it is my fond hope that some of them will guest-post on TN soon with both updates on the specific case-studies covered in the report and comments about their other ongoing initiatives in the area of housing, land and property rights.