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Hidden and exposed: Urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya

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Executive Summary

The traditional image of life in tented, sprawling camps no longer tells the full refugee story. As the world urbanises, refugees too are increasingly moving to built up areas - including large towns and cities. Today, almost half of the world's 10.5 million refugees reside in urban areas, with only one-third in camps (UNHCR, 2009). Refugees move to the city in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence. However, in reality, what many actually find is harassment, physical assault and poverty. Yet there has been scant research into their situation and funding and resources available to assist urban refugees are limited.

In Kenya, a country that today is home to more than 374,000 refugees (UNHCR 2010), there has been significant attention on the plight of refugees living in overcrowded camps such as Dadaab in the east of the country. Yet there has been little focus on the growing number of refugees living in its urban centres. Indeed, the exact size of the refugee population in the capital city Nairobi is not known. Official figures suggest there are around 46,000 refugees in Nairobi (UNHCR 2010), however unofficial estimates are nearer 100,000 (RCK, 2008; Dix, 2006). Despite these high numbers, both quantitative and qualitative information available on these populations is scarce. Urban refugees are dispersed over big cities, often highly mobile and reluctant to come forward for support due to fears that they could be deported or sent to refugee camps. This makes them a largely 'invisible' population, despite their significant need for protection and other support mechanisms.

It is in this context that the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) undertook this exploratory review to develop a clearer understanding of the profiles and challenges of urban refugees living in Nairobi. This working paper also attempts to better understand the policy framework for refugees in Kenya and current assistance available to them. It will contribute to a larger research initiative led by HPG that focuses on the phenomenon of displacement in urban areas, across a number of countries.