This article explores how people in conflict zones adapt their livelihoods after they migrate to urban areas. Drawing on case studies in two towns in the Darfur region of Sudan, the authors find that livelihood systems are in transition and have undergone fundamental changes resulting from displacement and the effects of conflict on dysfunctional and failing institutions. Urban migrants’ livelihood strategies evolve in a context of insecurity, distorted markets, lack of regulation and punitive rent-seeking regimes such as protection payments. Maladaptive livelihood strategies emerge in response to the need for food and income in the short term. New strategies also can increase societal inequities and marginalization, and over-exploit limited natural resources. Thus the ‘new’ livelihoods cannot be considered sustainable or equitable, or even able to provide food security in the short term. Locally appropriate and innovative approaches to support livelihoods are badly needed, but it is important to monitor and evaluate their impacts on livelihood groups, local economic recovery, environment and conflict.