Issue 35 - Article 3

Urbanisation and the social protection of refugees in Nairobi

November 21, 2006
Sarah Dix, International Rescue Committee

Urban refugees have long existed in the Nairobi area, and international aid agencies have long been aware of them. Today, there are an estimated 40,000–100,000 in the city. Yet despite this significant presence, international aid agencies have only recently begun to address the needs of urban refugees. Why have urban refugees been ignored for so long, and why are their needs being recognised now?

The often-cited ‘invisibility factor’ may have made it easier to ignore them. Like self-settled refugees elsewhere, those in Nairobi are living and working among the host community. They are geographically dispersed across the city, and many are mobile, moving between the city, camps and even their country of origin. They may also take on different identities depending on the context, and this makes it harder to see them. For example, in Eastleigh, the neighbourhood with the highest concentration of refugees in the city, the census reports that most of the area’s residents are Kenyans. But if you gain the trust of those who live there, they will tell you that Eastleigh is largely populated by refugees.

Aid agencies’ awareness of urban refugees did not immediately translate into attention to their problems because urban refugees are not officially recognised. The government’s encampment policy requires refugees to stay in remote camps. Therefore, aid has mainly been channelled to camps, with agencies and government alike not keen to do anything in Nairobi that might counter Kenyan policy or attract refugees to the urban area. Refugees have still been migrating to the city, but due to legal restrictions constraining both potential donors and recipients of aid, their needs have not been fully assessed or acted on.

Given the low demand for services coming from an urban refugee population that needs to be invisible, and the limited supply of aid that donor organisations could legally provide, turning a blind eye to the situation of urban refugees was an easy and politically viable strategy. Only recently has this situation changed, as the Kenyan government has begun to redefine its stance towards the problems posed – and faced – by refugees. This change has been gently encouraged by UNHCR and NGOs advocating on behalf of refugees, and provides an opportunity for a broader range of actors to start attending to the urban refugee population.


An enabling policy environment

Underlying the policy changes recently implemented by the Kenyan government, there has been a realisation over time by all parties that the protracted refugee situation in Kenya is not going to resolve itself quickly. Kenya has been receiving refugees since the 1970s, with mass migration since the 1990s. Camp populations are about 230,000, as of August 2006. Given the protracted nature of the refugee crisis, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain a strict encampment policy, calling instead for a strategy of incorporation designed to benefit Kenyans as well as refugees.

As refugees have increasingly migrated to the city, they have turned to Nairobi-based organisations such as the Refugee Council of Kenya (RCK), a Kenyan human rights advocacy group, and the 20-plus national and international agencies working on refugee issues. NGOs have been advocating on their behalf, while agencies such as RCK, IRC, GTZ and UNHCR have engaged the government in discussions over how to align its policy with international refugee conventions and protocols, including the rights to documentation, to move freely and to work.

As a result, although parliament has yet to incorporate the international rights of refugees into domestic law, a bill was introduced in August, and the government has shown other signs of change. This is mainly seen in the current campaign to document migrants in Nairobi, with the suggestion that alien registration will bring greater access to education, vocational training and small-business opportunities. Potential benefits to the government as well as the public include an increased tax base, economic growth and enhanced safety in refugee communities.

Registration is underway, and has been well received by urban refugees, who report that their temporary receipts are being recognised by the police and have afforded them better treatment. Another policy change has been to allow grassroots refugee groups to register with the government. For example, whereas two years ago a Congolese group of parents was denied the possibility of registering their school cooperative, today they can draft a constitution and be recognised as a legal entity as a ‘self-help’ group. The concerted efforts of organisations acting on behalf of refugees, and the response from the Kenyan government, have allowed for this late, small but important change.


Why should we care?

In Nairobi, the poorest refugees are more marginalised, vulnerable and at risk than their poor Kenyan neighbours. Many are double migrants: first, they leave countries in conflict, and second, they leave or avoid the camps. In Nairobi, they may be escaping forced marriages or clan conflicts that cross the border, as well as the hot, arid climate and lack of economic opportunities in the camps.

The vulnerability of urban refugees is aggravated by their lack of legal status. They do not have the same rights as refugees in the camps, such as to documentation, movement, food, healthcare or protection. While they nominally have the same access as Kenyans to public schools and hospitals in Nairobi, they do not have a recognised political voice. As a result, they are not able to transform their nominal rights into real, exercised rights.

Nevertheless, for aid agencies as well as the UNHCR, donors and local NGOs, the current policy environment to which they have contributed provides an opportunity to initiate or step up efforts to assist refugees in Nairobi. Conceptually, this requires a very different approach from that in place in the camps. In the camps, the model of assistance is a partnership of international NGOs operating under the auspices of UNHCR. Partners receive and register new arrivals, and directly provide food, firewood, shelter, medical care, education, community services and protection. In Nairobi, refugees live and work side by side with Kenyans, including co-ethnic Kenyans, such as Somali Kenyans and Ethiopian Kenyans. Food and emergency assistance is provided on a one-time basis by mosques and churches, as well as by co-ethnics. There are only two temporary shelters citywide, for refugees and Kenyans alike; accommodation is privately rented, or exchanged for live-in help. The poor find it difficult to access education and medical care due to the cost of transport, books, uniforms, desks and fees. Income-generating activities are possible for those who have access to capital, often along clan lines and transnationally. But in most cases, urban refugees lack access to such activities.


How do we respond to poor urban refugees?

In the urban context, poor urban refugees require not only material goods and services, but also solutions that build on existing informal mechanisms, and enable them to increase their capacity and access to livelihood resources.

For example, while many urban refugees express a need for microcredit to start small businesses, microfinance institutions are understandably hesitant to take the risk of serving what is potentially a transient client who falls outside the Kenyan legal framework. To address this, aid agencies may partner with microfinance institutions to offer workshops and training so that clients are more likely to repay loans; depending on the circumstances, they may also provide the microfinance institution with a reserve fund to compensate for defaults. With enhanced capacity, loan recipients are more likely to reinvest earnings to develop their businesses, as well as to meet their subsistence needs.

Social as well as economic capital can overcome many of the challenges that urban refugees face. A visit to the bustling Eastleigh neighbourhood shows that Somalis and Ethiopians own and run the area’s thriving markets, transport systems, cybercafés and hotels. While they do not vote, they and their Kenyan business partners have the ear of local government and religious leaders. The task ahead is to incorporate the poor, giving them the ability and incentive to build networks to address their socioeconomic needs.

In that sense, while the government, the UN, aid agencies and Kenyan NGOs play key roles in assisting and advocating for urban forced migrants, the urban context challenges us to be willing to trust refugees not only to participate in, but also to manage, their own solutions. Many observers have noted that, in Nairobi, Great Lakes refugees are organised, for example creating their own schools and operating informal social protection networks, including self-funded revolving loan groups. These and other existing structures can be used as springboards for further community initiatives. Where grassroots urban refugee structures do not exist, such as among Somali women in Eastleigh, aid agencies may play a role in providing incentives for leaders to emerge and organise groups, as well as removing barriers to their creation.

Where civic organisations have developed, an invisible refugee population has become more visible and more likely to be heard. Nurturing such organisations could help refugee communities help themselves, and make the government more responsive to the problems they face. Moreover, addressing the social protection needs of urban refugees requires building linkages across national and ethnic groups, and between citizens and non-citizens. This serves not only to prevent conflict over distribution of resources, but also strengthens the host community, as well as the voice of non-citizens.



Although the experience of humanitarian aid agencies attending to refugees in Nairobi is too new to offer lessons learned, it is clear that at least three areas require consideration.

First, the urban context requires well-coordinated efforts among agencies. In the camps, the tasks of each agency are essentially defined by written agreements that determine who does what. But in the city, there are no clearly drawn lines. With such a geographically dispersed population, and a large pool of humanitarian, development, governmental and private actors involved, coordination is essential. In Nairobi, UNHCR has created an open coordination forum that enables international and local organisations to exchange information, focus efforts and avoid overlap, and to collaborate in policy advocacy. Such efforts are in great demand.

Second, in the urban setting humanitarian aid may need to target communities rather than refugees alone. On the one hand, this approach provides an opportunity to create linkages across national and ethnic groups. On the other, it avoids resentment by the host community. For example, urban refugees use public services, so it is critical that city planners and aid agencies consider access to education, medical care, accommodation, credit, business licenses, bank accounts, legal and other services in a way that does not create resentment among the local population.

Third, it is key to build the capacity of refugees to address their needs and be their own advocates. In the camps, agencies are working to create opportunities for refugees to participate in programmes and decisions to the extent possible. Such participatory approaches are not enough in the urban setting. Urban refugees demand and deserve to engage in civil society. In some communities, refugees may naturally participate in associations, which international agencies can strengthen by providing training, skills, information and other support. Where community groups do not form, we can work to create sustainable organisations by using civil society-building as a strategy to achieve our objectives.

Many of the problems posed and faced by urban refugees in Kenya are present in other parts of Africa. The response to these problems by aid agencies, UNHCR and the government may inform similar efforts elsewhere. The realisation that refugee encampment is not a long-term solution has prompted the Kenyan government to promote a more enabling policy environment. This has in turn provided an opening for Nairobi-based activities by international and local organisations that have been advocating for urban refugees. A necessary next step is to nurture and develop the incipient civic organisations that have appeared among urban refugees.


References and further reading

Karen Jacobsen and Loren Landau, ‘Recommendations for Urban Refugee Policy’, Forced Migration Review, no. 23, 2005.

Karen Jacobsen, The Economic Life of Refugees (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005).

Loren Landau, ‘FMO Research Guide: Urban Refugees’, Forced Migration Online, February 2004,

Okechukwu Ibeanu, ‘Globalization and Refugee Policy in Africa: Reflexions on Contemporary Humanitarianism’, in Tade Akin Aina and Chachage S. L. Chachage (eds), Globalization and Social Policy in Africa (Dakar: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2004).


Sarah Dix is Civil Society Coordinator for IRC Kenya. Her email address is:


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