The Syrian refugee crisis has highlighted the urgent need to address the multi-dimensional challenges presented by urban refugees more effectively. In particular, a municipal approach that better coordinates the efforts of national and local authorities, with an eye to increasing local capacity and building social cohesion, is needed.

Six years ago, in March 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted in Daraa, in Syria. Conflict on a catastrophic scale has since engulfed the country. Among the civil war's most profound and lasting consequences has been the mass exodus of Syrians fleeing conflict to neighbouring countries and farther afield. As of January 2017, there were 4,860,836 Syrian refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and North Africa alone – the second-largest refugee population in the world after the Palestinians. A major challenge posed by this mass displacement involves a shift in refugee patterns towards urban areas, where humanitarian aid is less accessible, and tensions with host communities more common, than in the typical refugee camps overseen by national or international agencies.

Indeed, the accommodation of refugees in cities has become a transformative political issue in Europe and the United States. Anxieties about the security threats and economic burdens of refugees have helped fuel the populist nativism and xenophobia that has shifted national politics rightward to a degree that – given the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the United Kingdom's vote to exit the European Union, and the rise in Marine Le Pen's popularity in France, among other developments – is affecting the international order.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, 90% of Syrian refugees are living outside of refugee camps. They have gravitated to cities and towns in search of employment and support networks. The settlement of Syrian refugees in the urban areas of host countries follows the global trend and points to a profound and lasting international shift away from the camp model of the post-Second World War era. Along with establishing specific humanitarian needs, the pattern of urban refugee settlement also imposes unique challenges to the security, economic and political systems of host communities. Due to its scale and protracted nature, the urban refugee situation stemming from the Syrian conflict has compelled humanitarian responders, security agencies and national leaders to work harder and more inventively to fill gaps in state-response capacity.

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