Towns and cities are increasingly bearing the brunt of regional conflicts. During 2016, competing forces often resorted to using urban centres as a staging ground for violence, while a growing tendency among refugee populations to settle in towns and cities placed unprecedented strain on host communities and infrastructure. 

Conflict and displacement are increasingly taking place in cities. Approximately half of the 36 conflicts featured in the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, and all of the high-intensity ones, have a significant urban component.

Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resulted in trench warfare in southern population centres, with the number of recorded fatalities reaching 3,000 over the course of 2016, the highest level since 1997. A surge in attacks on cities and public places put civilians in great danger.

Likewise, the conflict in South Sudan touched urban areas in the southern regions of the country. In Afghanistan, the Taliban extended its strategy of carrying out suicide attacks in urban centres. Similarly, most of the highest-casualty attacks in Pakistan, many of them sectarian in nature, occurred in urban areas.

The latest figures on refugee movements to non-Western countries demonstrate that the long-term trend of refugees settling in urban centres is now being amplified by mass displacement resulting from the Syrian conflict. Around 90% of Syrian refugees have settled in urban and periurban centres in neighbouring countries, according to data published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The trend marks an important shift away from the more traditional pattern of hosting refugees in designated camps, commonly located in border regions. This places unprecedented pressure on socio-economic infrastructure while increasing uncertainty for host communities, aid agencies and governments. It also complicates the provision of timely and equitable assistance, given that the majority of refugee communities are increasingly geographically dispersed.

This article is part of our content to accompany the launch of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons.

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A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.