Urban refugees need legal clarity, says report

Tens of thousands of refugees living in Kenyan cities will continue to suffer police harassment, lack of protection, violation of their human rights and discrimination, as long as the government fails to properly implement recent legislation, says a report by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK).

"The rights of such refugees to move freely within Kenya and reside in urban areas are currently unclear," Sara Pavanello, a researcher with HPG at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), said during the launch of Hidden and Exposed: Urban Refugees in Nairobi.

"Urban refugees are often very mobile and are reluctant to come forward, making them a largely hidden population,” she said in Nairobi. "As the world urbanizes, refugees are increasingly moving to cities in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence. Yet what many actually find are precarious living conditions and harassment, discrimination and poverty.”

In 2006, she said, the government of Kenya passed a Refugee Act setting out the legal and institutional framework for managing refugee affairs.

"While the Act was largely welcomed by civil society and represents a step in the right direction, it has been undermined by a lack of institutional capacity, and the absence of a clear national policy outlining the necessary steps for its implementation,” she said.

"In practice, this means that many refugees have different documentation and many are not sure what papers they should apply for or how to apply. This confusion is further compounded by fears voiced by many refugees that they may be deported or sent back to the camps when brought in contact with the authorities, again a by-product of lack of clarity around refugee status.”

Most of the 370,000 refugees living in Kenya are housed in camps in the arid north of the country because only there are basic services such as shelter and food provided.

There are some 46,000 registered refugees in Nairobi, with an equal number estimated to live in the city without documentation. Somalia tops the list of countries of origin, with 20,000 registered refugees, followed by Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Eritrea and Burundi.


Life as an urban refugee is frustrating and difficult, especially when one is skilled but cannot get employment for lack of a work permit, Tsegaye Gudeta, a refugee originally from Ethiopia's Oromo region, said. He fled his home in 2005 fearing political persecution.

"I have a Bachelor’s degree in education, I have an alien's card, I am registered with both the Kenya government and the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] yet I can barely afford the rent for the single room I share with three other refugees," Tsegaye told IRIN.

"I have been doing volunteer work with the IRC for the past two years, working with refugee women's and youth groups in Kariobangi and Eastleigh. I continue to apply for various positions in organizations that work with refugees but all has been fruitless.

"Because of working with women's and youth groups, I have learnt that language barriers, cultural differences and poverty contribute a great deal to the discrimination that refugees deal with in Nairobi, but the greatest fear among many is harassment by police, extortion and in some cases violence," he said.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Newly arrived refugees: The government of Kenya passed a Refugee Act in 2006 setting out the legal and institutional framework for managing refugee affairs (file photo)

Kellie Leeson, IRC's country director, said refugees interviewed for the report spoke of constant harassment by police - from officers demanding financial bribes to physical beatings and intimidation.

"Some refugee communities have even come together and organized monthly financial collections, which they pay to police to prevent such harassment."


The report's recommendations focus on refugee protection, livelihoods and service delivery.

"All support must be given to ongoing Kenyan reforms known as Agenda 4, in particular the section that addresses the need for systematic reform of the police."

The government must address the confusion regarding the legal status of refugees living in Nairobi, the report recommends, urging donors to support efforts to train police and government officials on refugee rights and documentation.

It also urges the government and the humanitarian community to recognize and support the significant contribution to the economy by refugees living in Nairobi.

"With a better understanding of this area, the humanitarian and development community can support the government of Kenya in enhancing the self-reliance of refugees as a means to promote durable solutions."