In Kenya's “little Mogadishu,” a precarious life for urban refugees
June 4, 2012 by Jane Yang
|Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, is known as “little Mogadishu” because of the high concentration of Somali immigrants. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC|
Last week, I witnessed a mugging. Look one way and you see a busy sidewalk in Nairobi, bustling with the sounds and sights of commerce. Turn your head a little, and you see the darker side of the city: A pair of robbers fleecing a victim, one grasping the unfortunate man in a choke hold while his partner pillages his pockets. It all happens so suddenly and then, just as suddenly, it is over. The victim lies in a dazed heap, his plundered handkerchief tossed derisively back at him by his assailants, who nonchalantly walk away with their booty. The street, which had frozen in unison to watch the terrible event unfold like a silent movie, slowly grows alive again, as if nothing strange has happened.
But what is a refugee doing in an urban area like Nairobi, rather than a camp? Laban Osoro, coordinator of the IRC’s urban team in Kenya, describes the situation: “The iconic image of refugees is that of overcrowded camps with strained resources, but the reality is that more refugees are trying to survive in towns and cities. Urban areas present opportunities to build a future, earn a living and even stay anonymous for those facing security issues in the camp.”
Urban centers present their own set of complexities, to be sure. By opting to weave into the fabric of an existing city, refugees often avoid the registration process to obtain important legal documents. They forfeit the automatic access to food, water and shelter offered by a refugee camp. Furthermore, urban refugees often face exploitation, arbitrary arrests and detention.
Lack of understanding and inaccurate information also plague those who, like the IRC, work to assist refugees and promote their rights. In March 2010, the IRC in partnership with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) published the groundbreaking report “Hidden and Exposed: Urban Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya,” which for the first time explained what life is like for urban refugees. How do undocumented refugees earn money when legally they are forbidden to work? What do they do when a child falls ill?