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Urban refugees

Urbanisation - the refugee game-changer

IRC-UK executive director Carolyn Makinson with a group of refugee women in Eastleigh

NAIROBI, Kenya - The word ‘refugee’ brings to mind rows of white tents spread over remote and dusty plains – today has made me think differently. I am in Nairobi, home to tens of thousands of refugees trying to survive and build a new life in Kenya’s sprawling capital. Eastleigh, a neighbourhood on the east side of the city, is home to an estimated 120,000 refugees. The majority are Somalis who have fled conflict and drought in their own country. Rather than head for refugee camps, increasingly they seek the anonymity and opportunities for self-reliance offered by the city. They are not alone in this choice – according to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee body, more than half of the world’s refugees now live in urban settings.

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing the largest urban growth in the world. Over a third of Africa's one billion inhabitants currently live in urban areas, but by 2030 that proportion will have risen to a half. Refugees today are more likely to be fleeing from cities – it is hardly surprising, then, that they seek refuge in towns and cities rather than rural camps. Many of the Somali refugees I am meeting, for example, are from the battle-scarred city of Mogadishu. Their skills and knowledge fit the dynamic economy of city life, and are no better equipped for eking out a rural living than I – a confirmed Londoner – would be.

In Eastleigh, their urban economic skills have found a firm foothold. Walking through the streets it is clear that this is no backwater: the buzz of commerce is in my ears and everywhere I look there are restaurants, shops and traders of all sorts. Despite having no tarmac roads and, judging by the sometimes-ramshackle buildings, no semblance of town planning, Eastleigh nevertheless boasts a booming economy, stoked by the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit of the refugee population.

It looks as if 4x4 vehicles were built for Eastleigh’s pitted, potholed, and frequently flooded streets. I am heading to meet a group of seventeen refugee women who have started their own village savings and loans association with the support of the IRC. The group meets weekly, and members invest small amounts of money to buy shares in the group, entitling them to draw small loans. These loans are paid back with interest that helps the savings pot grow. The thirty refugee groups supported by the IRC in Eastleigh have saved $15,000 between them since September. This is an astonishing amount of money considering the modest payments the women are able to make, and given that there is no external investment. It makes an impressive statement about the programme’s methodology. 

The women we meet are using the loans to start their own businesses - tea stands, restaurants and tailors - while the IRC business skills training helps them identify gaps in the market and develop their own business plans. They talk excitedly about how their greater economic muscle has changed the dynamic in their own households, giving them respect and a greater say in economic decision-making in the home.

Although there is some limited help available, life here for a refugee is tough. Despite protection under national and international law, refugees are frequently harassed by police who extort money and lock-up those who cannot afford to pay. I meet with IRC partner Kituo Cha Sheria, which runs an Urban Refugee Intervention Centre in Eastleigh providing free legal advice and representation for refugees. “Police here see refugees as walking ATM machines,” explained Ferd Moyomba who is part of a team of dedicated lawyers. He explains how police officers travel to Eastleigh to patrol for the sole purpose of extorting money from refugees. Harassment would peak on Fridays as officers looked for extra money for the weekend. However, things are changing. By training police in and around Eastleigh, Kituo Cha Sheria have bucked the city-wide trend of rising police abuse of refugees with encouraging falls in the reported cases of harassment.

Refugees here face all of the problems of the urban poor in Nairobi plus a whole additional burden of challenges. Many of the Somali refugees I meet do not speak English, making it very difficult to find a job, while landlords hike up rental costs as the pressure for space grows. The families I come across are not asking for a lot – one mother wants only to be able to send her daughter to school, while a proud father who speaks to me in broken English asks only for the right to work to support his family. Many look forward to the day when they can return home.

This is the reality of life for refugees in Nairobi, under-appreciated and often a convenient scapegoat. But in Nairobi, despite a lack of support, they are determined to make their own way in the city. This is not an easy life – by staying away from the camps they deny themselves the food, shelter and other assistance they would be entitled to there. For organisations like the IRC with a mandate to help refugees wherever they are, the urban shift is a game-changer. The city is the new refugee camp. The rights of a refugee do not end where the city begins, and we need to get better at giving urban refugees the support they deserve.

By Euan Robinson IRC-UK's advocacy and policy officer