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Hidden and exposed: urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30
Samir Elhawary - Research Officer, Humanitarian Policy Group
Sara Pantuliano - Programme leader, Humanitarian Policy goup
Selena Brewer - International Rescue Committee
Peter Kessler - Senior External Affairs Officer in the UK, UNHCR

Peter Kessler - Senior External Affairs Officer for in the UK for UNHCR introduced the speakers and discussant for this event which aimed to give an overview and highlight the key findings from an exploratory study by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya into the profiles and challenges facing urban refugees in Naroibi, Kenya.

A film commissioned for the study and carried out by Media Serve was screened, telling the story of people forced to flee their home countries and now living in Nairobi as urban refugees.  The film gave insights into their daily lives, highlighting both their daily challenges and their hopes and aspirations for the future.


Samir Elhawary, introduced the background and the objectives of the study, as well as giving an overview of the factors leading refugees to migrate to Nairobi and the protection concerns they faced.

Half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate[1] now live in cities and towns, a trend that is growing in cities such as Nairobi. However, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities afflicting hidden refugee populations. The aim of the report was therefore to gain a better understanding of the profiles of refugees in Nairobi, the challenge they face and what assistance they receive, in order to identify ways in which to improve both international as well as government responses.

More than 80% of refugees in Kenya live in camps, which is where the government and UNHCR expect them to reside. Many stay because they cannot expect to receive assistance if they leave and most humanitarian agencies deliver assistance to the camps. Yet 46 000 refugees are officially registered with UNHCR in Nairobi, and the research indicates that numbers are as a high as 100 000, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda and Burundi.

So why do they seek out Nairobi? Samir identified a range of push and pull factors.

The former included insecurity in the camps in the form of sexual violence, or tensions arising between clans, ethnic groups and host communities, particularly over the use of natural resources. The lack of economic opportunities was also an important factor, as Kenyan law stipulates that refugees in camps are not allowed to receive a salary. In addition, camps are often overcrowded, and access to education or medical treatment is difficult. 

Pull factors were also identified, including the fact that Nairobi is a vibrant city, that refugees have kinship or other forms of networks which increase opportunities to find a source of income. Nairobi offers some security in the sense that refugees stand out less, and even though they often are poorly paid, they are able to receive some form of salary unlike in the camps.

While the government passed the Refugee Act in 2006 in an attempt to domesticate the UN convention on refugees, established a Department for Refugee Affairs, and set up parameters for processing refugee status, including identity cards. However, there is a disconnect between theory and implementing it in practice .The ministerial department lacks capacity to put the necessary systems in place, and that of UNHCR is also stretched.

Furthermore, there is no harmonization regarding the previous policies in place meaning that different refugees have different forms of documentation and identification leading to confusion regarding their status amongst police officers for instance. Police are often not familiar with the documents or the rights of refugees, something which can put urban refugees at risk of police harassment. This is one of the key protection concerns.

There have been some innovative community responses to police harrassment. For instance for a man, being accompanied by a pregnant woman acts as a deterrent. Another strategy being used is to contribute to a collective pot of money in order to pay officers, or to have informal agreements with the latter through paying monthly sums of around $ 1 and 50 cents in turn.

Sara Pantuliano made the second presentation focusing on livelihoods. She highlighted how the confusion over refugees’ legal status means they lack access formal employment, and that many therefore work in the informal economy by providing casual labour or engaging in petty trade.

An interesting finding emphasized in the report is that urban refugees who have resided in Nairobi for longer periods of time are in a number of cases very entrepreneurial, making important contributions to the local economy. Refugees from Somalia have been very successful in the retail sector for instance, while Congolese refugees have had some success in the beauty industry. Eastleigh is now a very vibrant district of Nairobi, and also employs many Kenyans, something which can add an element of protection.

Nonetheless, while it was highlighted that this was an important trend that both agencies and the government needed to recognize, it also represented the top end of the scale.

For the vast majority of urban refugees, but also for many Kenyans, there is a lack of access to livelihoods opportunities as well as basic services, something which will be examined in a later case study that will include host communities. However, the status of urban refugees brings added burdens, including the ability of landlords to charge them higher rents, or having to pay more than Kenyan nationals in school fees for example.

Futhermore, there is a lack of services specific to urban refugee needs such as psychosocial support.

While Kenyan neighbours in the district don’t see urban refugees as a burden to the economy, they may resent better jobs being reserved for them, and their being targeted for humanitarian assistance.

Overall international humanitarian assistance is very limited, and the government is concerned that too much might act as a pull factor from the camps to the city. Other forms of assistance or safety-nets exist, such as remittances in the form of zakat, or the establishment of a francophone school. Faith-based organizations also provide support, yet none of these initiatives will address the issue of social cohesion as they are targeted at specific groups.

The reality is that while the highest wish of urban refugees would be to return to their home countries, many cannot do so in the near future. There needs to be far greater dialogue around how the government and international agencies can engage more sustainably and in order to support this, greater analysis on the plight of urban refugees.

Sara then gave an overview of the key recommendations arising from the study which included:

-          Refugee status: urging the Kenyan government to implement the structures set out by the Refugee Act, support police in the form of training on refugee rights and documentation and for humanitarian agencies and UNHCR to continue providing legal assistance, but also for both sides to engage in dialogue on how to bring the different actors and communities together and promoting better understanding amongst all.

-          Economic contributions: this needs to formally assessed as part of promoting durable solutions, and funding opportunities also need to be developed that better reflect urban refugees and their needs.

-          Social cohesion: in the area of service delivery, urging international and government actors to engage in dialogue around how to tailor assistance that caters to the needs of all vulnerable communities, including IDPs, urban refugees as well as host communities.

Selena Brewer from IRC thanked the presenters and highlighted some of the challenges IRC faces in providing assistance to urban refugees in Kenya.

Lack of funding is a major obstacle, both due to a lack of awareness amongst donors and agencies regarding urban refugees, and the fact that donor budget lines tend to be linked to providing humanitarian assistance in camps.

Targeting is also a challenge, and often urban refugees do not want to be identified, fearing they will be sent to refugee camps or be persecuted. The logistics of providing services is also more difficult in urban settings.

Selena commended the recommendations made in the report, particularly around the need for better understanding of the vulnerabilities of not only urban refugees but also urban populations as a whole. IRC have recently developed a manual to guide assistance in urban settings, but financial support and greater cooperation amongst actors is still lacking. She concluded by noting that this collaboration needed to take place within the wider discussion around durable solutions in protracted crises, and a framework adopting long-term solutions to long-term problems.


Peter also thanked the presenters and then opened the floor to questions from the audience:

Legal status of economic migrants:

One member of the audience asked how one could differentiate between urban refugees and informal or illegal economic migrants, and the pull factors driving their move to cities. In both cases there are disincentives to legally recognizing their economic contribution on the part of employers, a phenomenon also common to Europe for example.

Sara noted that this study focused on the particular challenges around determining refugee status, but agreed that there were perverse incentives involved with regards to labour markets. She mentioned that HPG would be focusing on different dimensions of displacement to urban areas in future case studies which would include the perspectives of host communities and the legal forms of support these provide. More generally, protection issues don’t receive as much attention or funding as they do in camps.

Samir also commented that while pull factors may be quite similar, a key difference is that urban refugees have fled situations of insecurity and remain displaced because they are unable to return to their home countries.


One event participant asked whether there weren’t legitimate arguments for keeping refugees in camps as it was far simpler to support refugees in these settings, including regarding durable solutions.

Selena commented that while it was easier to deliver assistance in camps, it is only a short term solution, which is why more creative engagement on durable solutions is so important. Samir also pointed to the ethical considerations involved, and that the UN Refugee Convention state that location should not determine assistance. Peter gave examples of UNHCR operations to support the return of urban refugees, including urban refugees from Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia in Kenya, South African urban refugees in Scandinavia, and Afghan urban refugees in Pakistan.

Donor funding:

One participant noted that donor funding had been made available for activities following the post-election violence and displacement and asked if there were specific issues preventing funding to urban refugees.

Selena responded that there had been a perceptible increase in donor interest in the issue, but that it was not clear whether donors would accept the added difficulties involved in funding activities and new policies for assistance in this area.

Sara added that early dialogue with donors is important in order to engage their interest, and that progress on durable solutions also requires engaging with development actors and host governments. Peter also noted that donors should be encouraged to support a diversity of approaches to durable solutions.

Social Cohesion

A member of the audience asked whether there might be a contradiction within the study’s recommendation to support social cohesion through faith-based organizations amongst others.

Selena didn’t think there needed to be a contradiction, although the context of course mattered. Khartoum for example presented a whole different set of issues than Nairobi where participation of refugees from the Great Lakes region in Kenyan Churches is viewed as a good way of building relations to host communities. IRC have also looked at how they could support creation networks of women’s groups, and by working with a diversity of individuals, specific needs could be identified and addressed whilst supporting the aim of social cohesiveness at the same time. She also noted that integration always presents greater challenges where people are poor.

Future case studies

One participant enquired whether Sudan would form part of the study.

Sara explained that 5 case studies were planned this year in Sudan (Juba, Khartoum, Nyala, Port Sudan and Yei) where the dynamics of urban displacement and rapid rates of urbanisation, the legislative environment as well as the plethora of humanitarian agencies created significant challenges to policy engagement on this issue, including on promoting durable solutions. A broader study of urban displacement in Kenya will also be undertaken, taking into consideration internal displacement and tensions resulting from the post-election violence including conflict over land.

Other country studies include Afghanistan, also to be undertaken in 2010 together with Syria. Future planned studies include Gaza and Iraq, and either Yemen or Somalia. Studies in Colombia, Haiti and Pakistan are being discussed. Sara mentioned that India and Brazil are also envisaged as country studies if adequate financial support can be secured, as they are not usually the focus of humanitarian research, but where indicators of vulnerability are not dissimilar to emergency levels.

[1] UNRWA assists almost 5 million Palestinian refugees


The traditional image of life in tented, sprawling camps no longer tells the full refugee story. As the world urbanizes, refugees too are increasingly moving to built up areas. Today, almost half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees reside in urban areas, with only one-third in camps. They move to the city in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence; however, in reality, what many actually find is harassment, physical assault and poverty. It is in this context that the Humanitarian Policy Group, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya undertook an exploratory review to develop a clearer understanding of the profiles and challenges of urban refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya.

In Kenya, a country that today is home to more than 370,000 refugees, there has been significant attention on the plight of refugees living in overcrowded camps. Yet there has been little focus on the growing number of refugees living in its urban centres. Indeed, the exact size of the refugee population in the capital city Nairobi is not known with figures ranging from 45,000 to 100,000. Despite these high numbers, both quantitative and qualitative information available on these populations is scarce. Urban refugees are dispersed over big cities, often highly mobile and reluctant to come forward for support due to fears that they could be deported or sent to refugee camps. This makes them a largely ‘invisible’ population, despite their significant need for protection and other support mechanisms.

In this event, two of the authors presented the findings, highlighting the assistance and protection needs of refugees in Nairobi and the policy and operational challenges that confront aid agencies when responding to these needs. They will provide recommendations on how to better help these populations within wider strategies of assistance to vulnerable urban communities. A short film commissioned for the study will be shown at the event.