International Rescue Committee (IRC)

In Kenya's “little Mogadishu,” a precarious life for urban refugees

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. 

Perhaps here in Eastleigh, a suburb of the city known as “little Mogadishu” because of the high concentration of Somali immigrants, the sad truth is that “Nairobbery” is nothing out of the ordinary. Muggings are a common occurrence and targeted assaults against certain individuals—say, foreigners—even more so. When I say “foreigners,” I don’t mean expatriates. I mean refugees, as the victim I saw attacked most likely is.

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?
What types of harassment and exploitation do they face on a regular basis? The report findings have informed the design of the IRC’s programs for refugees in Nairobi, initiatives that aim to improve their economic security, open up access to basic services, and reaffirm their basic rights at local, national and international levels. 
In an effort to shed light on similar situations in other urban areas, the IRC recently has undertaken extensive assessments of four other cities (Mombasa, Eldoret, Kitale and Nakuru). The assessments are designed to examine the safety and security of the refugees, their access to services and job opportunities, and the extent of their integration into local communities. Preliminary findings indicate that the refugees in these urban centers have left the camps in search of education, security, better living conditions, work and a myriad of other issues. However, they receive little assistance in urban areas, largely because there are no agencies dedicated specifically to urban refugee living. 
Steve Apudo, an IRC urban program assistant, was part of the assessment team. “It was a challenging process,” he tells me. “Refugees in these areas have grown to be suspicious toward outsiders coming in and asking about their business.” But in the end, the assessments have proved valuable in helping to create a better understanding of the situation of urban refugees. 
The report based on the assessments will include concrete recommendations which will be shared with the government of Kenya, service providers and other groups interested and dedicated to protecting refugees. It is hoped and expected that positive change will take root. The process of changing attitudes and behaviors takes time. But we hope men like the one mugged in Eastleigh will be able to walk down a busy street peacefully without being harassed. It is important to start that process—and that is what the IRC is doing.

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1 comment


I'm so sorry for your pain my

I'm so sorry for your pain my friend. Please keep us uptdead on the girls and know that we are here if you need us. I'll be thinking of the girls and praying for their safety, if only that could be enough to keep them out of harms way.