Conflicts and natural disasters in Africa, especially in the Great Lake and Horn of Africa have been causing a lot of forced displacements, leading to persons seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Kenya is one of the biggest refugee hosting countries in the region since the 1990s, either in designated camps or in urban areas. Kenya is one of the developing countries hosting more than half a million of refugees and Asylum Seekers. This makes it the third-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa after Uganda (1,498,442 Refugees; as of 30 June 2021) (UNHCR 2021b) and Ethiopia (785,322 Refugees; as of 30 June 2021) (UNHCR 2021a). The vast majority of those refugees (54%) are from Somalia followed by (25%) of refugees from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (9%), Ethiopia (5.7%), Burundi (3%), Sudan (2%), and other nationalities (Uganda, Eritrea, Rwanda and more is about 1.3%). Despite the restrictions and the encampment policies put in place by the Government of Kenya, out of the 512,494 refugees and asylum seekers present in Kenya; 81,574 reside in the urban areas of Nairobi and the rest reside in the camps (430,920) without mentioning the undocumented urban refugees in the country (UNHCR-KENYA 2021). 

Meanwhile, the assessment of the nature and magnitude of urban refugees’ problem in Nairobi is important in understanding the reality about the socio-economic facts in the host community where refugees interact because they do not interact in a vacuum. Since refugees face a distinctive regulatory environment in Kenya compared to the host community, this study sought to assess the nature and magnitude of urban refugees’ problems in Nairobi. According to Betts et al. (2018), refugees in Kenya face a particular economic governance framework. This is defined by the restrictions on right to work and freedom of movement. In practice, “there is a de facto legal pluralism within Kenya. Restrictions are differently enforced and implemented in different parts of the country; the camps and Nairobi represent different regulatory environment” Betts et al, (2018). Nevertheless, this study was interested in finding out the socio-economic challenges facing the refugees in Nairobi where the policy in practice is different from the one on paper and the host community and the government. The study revealed that 97.79 percent of the refugees say that they are free to move within Nairobi. Meanwhile, 2.21 percent say that they do not have freedom of movement in Nairobi. This shows that the restriction policy in the camps is different from the one in the urban areas of Nairobi. 

The data sources of this study are secondary data from the UNHCR data portal and also information collected from the office of various international organisations in Nairobi. The second data source was the primary data collected from the urban refugees in Nairobi by using the Respondent-Driven Sampling (RDS) which is similar to snowball sampling, also called a chain-referral sampling method where study participants recommend other people they know. This technique is useful for sampling from hard-to-reach populations. The Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) is mathematically tweaked to add an element of randomness. Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) can be thought of as a group of snowballs, each rolling down a hill in its own random direction. Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) is a sampling method that does not need a list of members to sample from, something that is hard or impossible to get for hard-to-reach populations. Therefore, the study was able to reach 226 households of refugees in Nairobi. 

The Three Main Social Challenges Facing Urban Refugees in Nairobi

The main social challenges faced by urban refugees are discrimination (68.58 percent); language barrier (54.87 percent), especially Congolese refugees who are from francophone backgrounds with only a few of them speaking Swahili (The national language of Kenya). Police harassment is the third major social challenge with more than half of the refugees falling victims (53.98 percent) (figure 1). While in the field a Somali refugee Adam said that because of a lack of good English or Swahili the police harass them a lot.  

“I still don’t know good Swahili and many Kenyans take advantage of that in humiliating me. Our rights as Somali people around this place are also not granted especially in the representation, police use a lot of force in enforcing the law on us.” 

According to Omata (2020), the budget for police is part of the Somali refugees’ daily routine to avoid imprisonment and abusive arrest in Nairobi. Abraham said,

“I have not gone to school and so speaking English or Swahili is a problem to me, police are not on good terms with us as the Somali people and this attributes to the insecurity”

The language barrier was a huge challenge faced while conducting the research, the major group of the Somalis does not speak good English even Swahili was an issue. A Congolese refugee John said:

“Coping with the English and the Swahili language has not been easy for me over the past 8 years. Police take a lot of bribes from us because they know we cannot get justice even if we are to face them in court. Our rights have not been fully entrenched in the constitution and this gives more room for our human rights to be taken for granted.” 

The aforementioned statement was something the study observed while in the field conducting the research. Some of the Congolese refugees are proficient in Kiswahili because of their background; they were from Kiswahili-speaking areas in their country of origin (Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) and French as well. Unfortunately, they do not speak good English; this prevents them to get a good job in Nairobi as English is the official language. 

Figure 1: The main social challenges facing refugees in Nairobi

The Three (3) Main Economic Challenges Facing Urban Refugees in Nairobi

Figure 2 below shows that the major economic challenge faced by urban refugees in Nairobi is the lack of opportunities (78.76 percent); followed by lack of income (63.72 percent) and thirdly is lack of resources (38.05 percent). Obviously, these three economic challenges are correlated, if there are no economic opportunities then refugees would not be able to access jobs or start their own businesses. Moreover, they will not be able to have sustainable income if they do not have a job. Paul said:

“There is no job; I have tried searching for a job now for 6 years up to no avail. I lack sufficient income to help me expand my business and when I try accessing the loan from financial institutions, the procedures are just complicated and their interest is very high that I cannot manage to pay”

The issue of loans to refugees has been pointed out by most respondents in this study. They pointed out that the banks in Kenya do not even allow them to have a bank account because of the requirement related to Kenya Revenue Authority Pin (KRA). Therefore, most banks do not give loans if the client does not have an account with them. 

David said:

I don’t have a proper job and that is why I chose to be a watchman just to cater to my family. The place where I stay has poor waste management and we don’t have proper toilets. I cannot access any loan since I know nobody who can be my guarantor

The study found out that the Congolese refugees, especially the males, decided to become security men. That job does not require a higher education level and proficiency in English. The paradox is that they are not well paid because of their low qualification. 

Lydia said:

“Sometimes it is hard to even get food, and I don’t have a job even right now. I’m supposed to move out from where I stay because the one I’m staying with is an old woman so we cannot help each other”.

The issue of housing has been raised by many refugees in Nairobi because being able to afford a house alone is not easy work. They prefer to stay with one or more of their fellow refugees where they could afford to pay the rent together.  

Sam said that, 

If you go to look for a job they ask you whether you are a Kenyan. Even if you get a job during the payment they will ask for a KRA pin and getting it is so hard”.

The lack of work permits has been a big challenge in terms of getting a job in Nairobi. The aforementioned statement has been narrated by many respondents while conducting the field research. This is the main reason why the majority of those refugees in Nairobi end up being either jobless or working in the informal sector. The fact is that while working in the informal sector the employers do not pay them a good salary. Some even said that they are doing the work because they must survive. They need to pay rent and also put bread on the table for their family. 

Joe said:

“Our income is very little. You are just surviving, you get the money and you spend it on rent and food”. 

This is justified by the fact that the monthly salary is not enough because they work in the informal sector. Moreover, the refugees who work for international organisations received incentive pay and not salary. The incentive is so little and it cannot be enough for someone who resides in Nairobi. Adam said:

“We are denied access to great jobs such as big company jobs. I tried it myself. I did not get it because of my refugee status. There is even a limit on the salary that you are allowed to have. All the refugees earn as incentive workers”

Though some of them are qualified to work in a big company their refugee status does not allow them to do so. The way that the Refugees Act (2006) stipulates that the refugees should comply with the regulation about foreign wage-earning to get jobs, is not the same on the ground in practice. Mary said:

“Living cost is high so I struggle alone since my husband is not there, l had to open a small business to sustain my kids and pay my rent is a struggle”

While conducting the fieldwork, the study met some entrepreneur refugees who start their own businesses because of a lack of sustainable jobs. 

Jonatan said:

“I have never been employed since I came to Kenya back in 2015; I only get involved in the small manual work labour that is paying small wages”.

The Congolese and Burundi Refugees are major manual workers in Nairobi. The females buy and sell the vegetable small ingredients.

Margret said:

“Living costs are high and since we have nothing to do we cope with it. Getting food is difficult. We have to get tomatoes from Githurai market and sell it door to door to earn our living. We also lack resources to establish a big business or loans from microfinances”.

Another issue raised by the participants during the fieldwork is that the refugees who are working with international organisations such as the UNHCR do not earn salaries but are given incentives ( See Omata, 2020).  

Figure 2: The main economic challenges facing refugees in Nairobi


The research took place in Nairobi on urban refugees by using a mixed-method approach. The study was able to collect primary data from 226 respondents in the urban area of Nairobi. The results from the field reveal that urban refugees in Nairobi faced a lot of challenges such as language barriers, discrimination, and more economic challenges such as lack of job opportunities, lack of income, and lack of resources. Meanwhile, the policies and practices found by the study are favourable in terms of regulatory and urban refugees’ freedom of movement. But the restriction to access work permits is an obstacle for urban refugees to have a sustainable income in the host community. The majority of the urban refugees rely more on their own business activities to enable them to generate more income. As a recommendation, the government of Kenya should allow urban refugees to participate in the labour market by issuing them the work permit required. This would allow them to be more self-reliant by generating more sustainable income. That would lead to more spending in the host community and more spending in the host country.


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