Kenya: Urban refugees face harassment and violence, says report
25 March 2010

A refugee in Nairobi holds up his registration certificate. Refugees in the Kenyan capital are regularly subject to harassment and extortion. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
“Harsh living and climatic conditions in the camps, security threats, the lack of higher education and the absence of specialised medical facilities push many refugees out of the camps and into urban areas.”
Nairobi, 25 March 2010 — Refugees and asylum seekers living in Nairobi are regularly subject to harassment and extortion, especially by the Kenyan police force, and they are exposed to high levels of criminal violence, says a report by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) that highlights the vulnerable position of many refugees living in Nairobi.

“Harsh living and climatic conditions in the camps, security threats, the lack of higher education and the absence of specialised medical facilities push many refugees out of the camps and into urban areas,” said lead author Sara Pavanello during the launch of Hidden and Exposed: Urban Refugees in Nairobi on March 25 in Nairobi.

Official UN figures suggest that there are around 46,000 refugees in Nairobi, whereas unofficial estimates put the number at 100,000. The majority are Somalis, followed by Ethiopians and Congolese refugees. Other population groups include Rwandans, Sudanese, Ugandans, Burundians and Eritreans.

Due to a lack of clear national policies necessary to implement the Refugee Act passed in 2006, there is confusion about the rights granted to refugees in Kenya, according to the report. In the cities, many of them have never registered with the relevant authorities, partly because they are afraid of being deported or sent back to the camps. This makes them a largely hidden population.

“While they share the same challenges as poor Kenyans, refugees and asylum seekers often have to pay higher rents, are charged more for public services or have to pay admission fees at primary schools,” said Pavanello. “Many of them told us they do not feel integrated,” she added.

For refugees in urban areas it is difficult to find access to livelihoods. The research gave an idea of their untapped economical potential and their contribution to the local and national economy but there has been little recognition of it and little effort to boost their productive potential. JRS is mentioned as one of the two organisations known to run programmes aimed at developing the skills of urban refugees and facilitating market access for their work.

“We must start highlighting what these communities bring to the table and work against the perception that they are a burden,” said Laban Osoro, Programme Coordinator with Kituo cha Sheria, a local NGO that provides legal advice to urban refugees, during the launch of the report.

While the report briefly names organisations involved in assisting refugees in Nairobi, it stresses that resources and capacities to assist urban refugees are either limited or inadequate for the urban context. “To assist each other, refugees have developed community safety nets over the last years,” said Pavanello. “We recommend that future interventions should target both, refugee and Kenyan communities.”

The report aims to develop a clearer understanding of the profiles and challenges of urban refugees living in Nairobi and is also an attempt to better understand the policy framework for refugees in Kenya and current assistance available to them. It will ultimately contribute to a larger research initiative led by HPG that focuses on the phenomenon of displacement in urban areas, across a number of countries.

“Many of the issues presented in this report are not new and had previously been identified by various organisations, such as JRS, who has assisted refugees and asylum seekers in Nairobi for 19 years,” says Stella Ngumuta, JRS Eastern Africa’s Regional Advocacy Officer. “However, this report is one of few initiatives to compile and publish the needs and challenges faced by urban refugees and asylum seekers in Nairobi”, she adds. It remains to be seen, whether there will be any follow-ups by the Kenyan government in effecting the recommendations provided in the report.


In 2009, JRS has assisted over 3,500 asylum seekers and refugees in Nairobi through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, education and psychosocial support.

Full report:

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