The streets in Eastleigh are filled with rows of matatus (buses) blasting reggae music, piles of garbage drenched in sewage water (due to decades of road maintenance neglect and a lack of formal waste collection systems), and throngs of people traversing the narrow streets. It is in this densely populated low-income area of Nairobi that most of the urban refugees reside. Though the specific number of refugees is unknown, UNHCR figures suggest that there are 53,074 registered refugees in Nairobi, with about 300-500 new arrivals each day from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and the Great Lakes Region. However, unofficial estimates put the total nearer to 100,000.
Kenya is host to the highest population of refugees in the Eastern and Central African regions. This is what attracted me to Kenya two years ago: I wanted to work with refugees, an extremely vulnerable population, whose rights are often doubly violated, both in their home countries and countries of destination. I had worked with refugees and immigrants in the United States for many years but had often wondered about those who never made to the U.S.—those who wait for years in hopes of obtaining resettlement and thus often live in limbo, unable to move forward to start new lives and unable to return to their country for fear of further persecution.
The Dadaab refugee camp, with 463,162 refugees, houses the largest population of refugees in Kenya but many are relocating to Nairobi in hopes of finding better services, jobs and security. In reality, these refugees are finding poor access to employment, insufficient housing, and infrastructure, inadequate social protection, and inaccessibility to health and education.
Many of the refugees I have worked with in Nairobi live in fear due to the risk of arrest, illegal detention, and extortion by police who use the precarious status of urban refugees in Eastleigh to their advantage. Women especially are targeted by police and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
In 2009, UNHCR drafted a policy on refugee protection titled “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas.” The report revealed that there are three primary barriers urban refugees face globally: 1) legal environments that restrict their ability to pursue work in the formal sector, 2) protection risks including threat of arrest and detention, refoulement, harassment, exploitation, discrimination, inadequate and overcrowded shelter, as well as vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), HIV-AIDs, human smuggling and trafficking and 3) lack of economic opportunities. Many NGOs in Nairobi are working to address these barriers to refugee protection but the gaps remain, fueled by social, political and economic issues that require a more comprehensive approach than currently exists.
Due to Kenya’s de facto encampment policy which restricts refugees to designated camps, xenophobia and limited funding for urban refugees, there is a great need for more inter-agency cooperation and advocacy. Though I often tend to view refugee problems through a legal lens, I now realize that solutions to address the complex issues confronting urban refugees require a holistic understanding of what the social, economic and legal needs are. There is also a great need for increased dialogue on whether repatriation, integration in Kenya and resettlement are the only durable solutions for refugees. Repatriation is often not possible in protracted situations while integration is difficult in host countries, such as Kenya, where the government is struggling to deal with its own internal humanitarian issues. Lastly, resettlement, a durable solution coveted by all refugees, is available to only a small percentage of the refugee population. This raises an important question: how durable is a solution if many are unable to access it?
Netsanet Tesfay is a U.S. lawyer who is currently the Protection Coordinator for the Multinational Relief and Development Organization (MURDO) and has previously worked on refugee and immigration issues with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), Urban Justice Center (UJC), and International Rescue Committee Kenya. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of IRC, MURDO, UJC or NWIRP.