Living on the Edge: A Livelihood Status Report on Urban Refugees Living in Nairobi, Kenya

  1. Executive Summary

Asylum seekers and refugees in Kayole, Eastleigh and Kitengela have made great strides integrating into the social and economic life of Nairobi. The livelihoods baseline illustrates that the socio-economic profile of the urban asylum seeker or refugee is not that of desperation and dependence. Rather it is one of incredible resilience in the face of significant odds. The majority are engaged in economic activities in the informal sector, and have made modest gains with limited support from the Government of Kenya or the humanitarian community. A minority are successful entrepreneurs providing much social and economic benefit to the communities they reside in. This minority provide a picture of what asylum seekers and refugees can achieve if they are explicitly conferred the right to work and reside in Nairobi, and with that, access to the necessary services and opportunities.

The majority of the urban poor, including asylum seekers and refugees, find livelihood opportunities in the highly competitive informal sector. Poor regulation, poor physical infrastructure and limited access to institutionalised business support services limit the viability of the informal sector. Those without specialised skills or capital to start a business earn daily wages as casual labourers or as low-level employees. For asylum seekers and refugees the odds are worse, encumbered by a lengthy asylum seeking process, limited engagement with local administrative authorities which deprives them of critical protection and support, and a business community hesitant to engage them as a potential market. Without ownership of fixed assets those seeking to start or grow a business fail to meet the collateral requirements for business loans.

The March 2012 livelihoods baseline indicates that food alone comprises between 45-55% of monthly costs for the very poor. Food and rent together account for between 70-80% of monthly costs. These households consume an average 95% of the minimum food requirements measured against 2,100 kilocalories per person per day. They afford accommodation in one roomed iron sheet housing for an average household of four, with irregular water supply and no sanitation facilities. After spending on food and housing, very little remains for other essentials. Additional expenditure on limited health care, hygiene, energy and water deplete the modest monthly wage. On the high end of the wealth spectrum are the middle and better off households, who separate themselves from the poor through skills and access to capital. These assets facilitate entry into highly profitable business enterprises that earn upwards of 100,000 Kshs per month.

Community based organisations (CBOs) established by refugees and at times in collaboration with the Kenyan community, provide much needed social support. CBOs assist with food and temporary accommodation on arrival, provide Kiswahili lessons and life skills, and facilitate links to labour opportunities. Better established CBOs receive external funding and organisational support to initiate income generating projects targeting asylum seekers, refugees and Kenyans.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the urban refugees’ livelihoods working group, with limited funding and experience, are implementing a range of livelihood projects . To improve the effectiveness of current livelihoods programmes, resources are required to build partner technical capacity in designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions, institutionalising the use of best practices, and scaling up. The urban refugee’s livelihoods strategy seeks to promote asylum seeker and refugee community self-reliance through short-term consumption support, complemented by institutional capacity building and income generation to address the underlying causes of livelihood insecurity. An advocacy component will accompany the strategy to promote policies that recognise the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to reside and be economically productive in Nairobi with the protection and support of the Government of Kenya (GoK) and the international community. Integrating Kenyan host community concerns in all interventions to build community understanding and combat xenophobia is a key component of the strategy.