Blog post by Manuela Ramos and Nancy Njoka, who both hold a MSc International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University


Most of the waiters here are refugees and do not have identity cards, so this is their business, this is the place they stay at, they eat here and when it gets dark, they go to their homes

– Kenyan Somali businessman in Eastleigh


Nairobi is a key city for mixed migration flows on all migration routes from East Africa. A majority of Somali refugees that live in the urban areas of Nairobi reside in Eastleigh, a well-known commercial area for having the Somali community running businesses, health facilities and informal jobs. From an approach of urban development, Eastleigh has become a space of identification for Somalis, colloquially referred to as “Little Mogadishu“. Somali refugees live and work side by side with Kenyans in the neighbourhood. Despite the economic independence of Somalis in Nairobi, they live largely without material assistance or legal protection from the Government of Kenya (GOK) or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are vulnerable to police arrest at any time.  Even though the numbers of urban refugees are continually rising in the country, the GOK has continued to promote the encampment policy that was imposed in the country in 2014, which requires all refugees to reside in the two designated camps in Kenya. Therefore, many urban refugees living in Nairobi are characterised by the continuous struggle of trying to restore their livelihoods in a policy context that is weighted against them. The quotes and data in this article were collected through a qualitative fieldwork research carried out in Nairobi between September and December 2020.


How do Somali urban refugees create their avenues for livelihoods?


Somali refugees make up 54% of all refugees in Kenya. In Nairobi, they are divided by well-established social networks that often provide them opportunities for housing, community integration, and informal employment. Somali urban refugees experience various obstacles and enablers when it comes to access to livelihoods assets. Even through all these challenges, the Somali urban refugees have managed to create livelihoods for themselves through the social networks as confirmed during the fieldwork interviews.  


As a Somali community we give each other jobs if you know the person.  If I know the person you will give them a job, if I don’t know the person, there’s no way you can come and work with me

– Kenyan Somali businessman in Eastleigh


The key obstacles stem from the tight encampment policy that requires all the refugees to stay in the camps. Although refugees have been allowed to engage in informal employment in the past, the encampment policy has made it even more difficult since accessing work permits is next to impossible for them. The employment of non-nationals is governed by the Kenyan citizenship and Immigration Act, 2011 under which work permits, called “Class M” permits valid for two years are usually granted. Despite the encampment policy, urban refugees have a right to reside outside of camps, and they are legally free to move. However, the urban refugees have to apply for a movement pass to move from the camps to the urban areas and have to be self-sufficient while living there. Another challenge is the growth of corruption in the public sector. Some of the strategies they use to make livelihoods include running small businesses or working in local businesses. Even though this is possible, the access to business licences is long, tedious and characterized by bribery. This opens avenues for county council police harassment.  


There is a license for the small things that they hawk, the county council comes and takes everything and they are taken to the police cells unless they bribe. Corruption is another challenge

– Somali refugee community leader


Forced migration policies in Kenya


After the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991 and the influx of Somali refugees to Kenya, Kenya adopted more restrictive policies that were influenced by notions of national security. Kenya is a signatory to a number of international treaties including the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Refugees in Kenya are administered in accordance with the Refugee Act 2006, which provided a legal framework for the GOK to exercise control over the refugee matters in the country. The enactment of this Act led to the establishment of the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) that was responsible for all the administrative matters concerning refugees in Kenya. DRA’s role was to offer identity cards to the refugees, policy formulation, collaboration with UNHCR, other NGOs, and integration among other roles. The Refugees Act 2006 was further strengthened by the promulgation of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, which provides for a wide range bill of rights including refugee rights. In this regard, the Kenyan law recognizes “prima facie” refugees and “statutory refugees”. The statutory refugees are the ones who flee their countries for fear of persecution whereas prima facie refugees are persons who have been compelled to leave their country of residence by external aggression, occupation, or foreign domination. The Somali refugees were under the latter definition.  


There are two main policies in Kenya to manage migration matters: The Refugee Act 2006 and the encampment policy. The Refugees Act 2006 has been criticized for its rigidity, as well as for presenting gaps on the lack of institutional capacity, and the absence of a clear national policy outlining the necessary steps for its implementation. There was a clear need for a new law to manage forced displacement in Kenya. As a result, the new Refugee Bill was passed through parliament in 2017 and gazetted in 2019. It provides a greater provision for refugee self-reliance, including the potential for refugees to access property and work permits. While the bill passed through all stages of parliamentary approval during early 2017, it has not been signed into law, and even if it is, the degree to which some of its more progressive elements will be implemented in practice is uncertain.  


The end effects of the restrictive Kenyan policies for refugees


The encampment policy is one of the mechanisms of exclusion by GOK and even though some urban refugees possessed assets like education and skills from their home countries or acquired new ones in Kenya, such policies and laws often block access to these livelihoods assets. When it comes to the limitation of livelihoods linked to the Kenyan legal framework, the experiences of the generational migrants are the most affected. Kenyan citizenship has implications in the experiences of the generational migrants in how livelihoods are created among the urban refugees. According to Kenyan law, the status of the children in Kenya will be the same as that of the parents. The politics of citizenship of this country shows a bounded model that holds the sovereignty of the state, restricting rights of the “outsider”, preventing them from having any kind of relationship with the state. Since refugees have no rights to be part of the political sphere of the country, it is not possible to change this citizenship dynamic; hence new generations of refugees born in Kenya will continue living in seclusion.    



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.