International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Tens of Thousands of Urban Refugees in Kenya Face Regular Harassment, Discrimination and Poverty - Press Release

Tens of thousands of refugees seeking safety in Kenya’s capital Nairobi are confronted with police harassment, exposure to criminal violence and a severe lack of livelihoods opportunities says a new report by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK).

In a new joint report, “Hidden and Exposed: Urban Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya,”  the three groups say many refugees in Nairobi face difficult living conditions and have specific and urgent needs that require greater understanding and support.  [ Full Report - PDF  l  Video l   Photos

“As the world urbanises, refugees are increasingly moving to cities in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence,” says Sara Pavanello, Research Officer with the HPG at the Overseas Development Institute.  “Yet what many actually find, are precarious living conditions and harassment, discrimination and poverty.”

There are around 46,000 registered refugees in Nairobi, although unofficial estimates suggest the figure could be much higher. Pavanello says the reasons they don’t register are varied. Unaware of their rights and ability to move within Kenya, many are too frightened to come forward. Others claimed the registration process is too cumbersome or that it forces them to leave their neighbourhoods and travel across town, which increases their exposure to possible abuse by the authorities.

“Refugees spoke of constant harassment by police – from officers demanding financial bribes to physical beatings and intimidation,” says Kellie Leeson, the IRC’s Country Director in Kenya. “Some refugee communities have even come together and organised monthly financial collections, which they pay to police to prevent such harassment.”

While the Government of Kenya does not have an official encampment policy, it is widely perceived by authorities that refugees should live in camps like Dadaab and Kakuma. Yet many refugees interviewed revealed that, in spite of the challenges of living in cities, they do not want to be based in overcrowded camps where there are few job opportunities and harsh climatic conditions.

“Refugees in Nairobi overwhelmingly tell us that they come here because they want to be independent and able to support their families,” adds Leeson. “Refugees have been forced out of their countries by violent conflict or persecution – they are not here by choice and they don’t want to be dependent on humanitarian aid.”

However without adequate support, many refugees are forced into poorly paid jobs and find it difficult to afford adequate essentials such as food, housing, healthcare and education. The situation is compounded by the fact that refugees are often exploited due to a lack of official papers and sometimes charged higher rents than their Kenyan neighbours.

“The Kenyan government took a big step forward in protecting and supporting refugees when it passed the Refugee Act of 2006, which outlines refugee rights and measures to protect them,” says Lucy Kiama, Executive Director of RCK. “However, the Act’s effectiveness has been undermined by a lack of institutional capacity to implement it, as well as the absence of a national policy needed to execute it.”

Much more needs to be done to implement the Act and ensure that government, along with civil society and the international community, can assist the country’s refugees with creative durable solutions. “Protection and support must be provided to vulnerable refugees – particularly women and girls – irrespective of where they are located,” adds Kiama.

In particular, all support must be given to systematic reform of the Kenyan police force, as well as training of police and government departments on refugee rights and documentation. At the same time, the donor community must recognise the shifting of refugees to urban areas and address this reality with targeted policies and programming.

The report concludes that, with the right support, many refugees can secure their livelihoods and positively contribute to the local economy. Indeed, some neighbourhoods of Nairobi such as Eastleigh have already become thriving hubs of informal commerce spearheaded by entrepreneurial refugees. “Refugees have the potential to be an economic engine in Nairobi,” adds the IRC’s Leeson. “Much more could be done to harness this opportunity by investing in refugee livelihood projects.”

Learn More

Full Report  - PDF  l  Video l   Photos

Update: International Rescue Committee and Kituo Cha Sheria raise concern about indiscriminate arrests and harassment in Kenya’s crackdown on refugees - Press Release 10 Dec 2010

Media Contacts

Kellie Leeson, Country Director, IRC, Nairobi: + 254 (0) 202 727 730

Lucy Kiama, Executive Director, RCK, Nairobi: + 254 (0) 722 452 948   

Leah Kreitzman, Media Officer, ODI, London: + 44 (0) 20 7922 0431 

at the ODI is one of the world's leading teams of independent researchers and information professionals working on humanitarian issues. It is dedicated to improving humanitarian policy and practice through a combination of high-quality analysis, dialogue and debate.

IRC responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, we offer lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. At work today in over 40 countries and 22 US cities, the IRC restores safety, dignity and hope to millions who are uprooted and struggling to endure. The IRC leads the way from harm to home.

RCK promotes and protects the rights of refugees and asylums seekers and internally displaced persons in Kenya and within the East Africa Region. RCK provides legal aid and psychosocial services to refugees and asylum seekers on asylum related matters; advocates and monitors their protection through research and documentation.