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Hidden and Exposed:Urban Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya

Working papers

Written by Sara Pavanello, Sara Pantuliano

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. Refugees 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 to 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. In Nairobi urban refugees are dispersed over the city, often highly mobile and reluctant to come forward for support due to fear 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. Yet the findings of this study also indicate that refugees make an important contribution to the local and national Kenyan economy. This could be further harnessed to great effect if there were greater initiatives to support refugee livelihoods.

This working paper highlights the assistance and protection needs of refugees in Nairobi and the policy and operational challenges that confront aid agencies when responding to these needs. It also provides recommendations on how to better help these populations within wider strategies of assistance to vulnerable urban communities.

Sara Pavanello, Samir Elhawary, Sara Pantuliano