Mayors from some 20 cities around the world are attending a two-day meeting hosted by the United Nations refugee agency to address the problems faced by millions of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees who are living in cities and towns around the world.  Representatives of national governments and international organizations are seeking ways to help the urban refugees and to ease the growing strains on the cities.  

The U.N. refugee agency reports half of the world's 10.5 million refugees are living in cities and towns.  They are joined by nearly twice that number of internally displaced people and returnees. 

It says the perception that most refugees live in sprawling tented camps is no longer true.  It says the growing phenomenon of urban refugees poses many new problems and challenges for both the refugees and the cities that host them. 

UNHCR Senior Policy Advisor Jose Riera tells VOA this is why the agency is reaching out for the first time to mayors.

 "The aim is really to hear their side of the story, understand their concerns and try and see how we can work closer together," said Riera.  "We are also aware of the concern that many local authorities have that, for example, they are not receiving enough support from central governments or are already facing difficulties in meeting the needs of their own city dwellers and inhabitants." 

He says he pressure on cities is enormous.  Recent estimates show that Afghan capitol, Kabul, has grown sevenfold since 2001.  Much of this is because of the return of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan. 

The UNHCR says hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are living in the Syrian and Jordanian capitals, Damascus and Amman.  It says Bogota, Colombia, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, also have absorbed hundreds of thousands of victims of armed conflict.

Riera says there are many good reasons why more and more refugees are choosing to go to the cities, rather than the camps.

"Life in a camp is a pretty sad thing.  A lot of countries have actually imposed strict encampment policies, which make it actually illegal for refugees to live outside of camps," added Riera. "Life in a city at least gives people choices and enables them to use the skills they have." 

But, Riera says life for urban refugees is very tough.  He says they live in the shadows, so as not to be detected by local authorities. 

He says they are forced to live in overcrowded slums.  They are exploited in low-paying jobs and have little or no access to health and social services.

"So, to say that city life is a great haven is somewhat inaccurate," said Riera. "But, what we do find is that when families can be together, when children are at school, when families can have access to health care - these are the building blocks of a better life."

Riera says, although it is tough to live in a city, refugees find they are better off there than they probably would be living confined to camps with no access to work and being dependent on international assistance.