Refugee livelihoods: a comparative analysis of Nairobi and Kakuma Camp in Kenya

Naohiko Omata


This paper compares the livelihoods of refugees living in a camp setting (Kakuma Camp) and an urban setting (Nairobi) in Kenya, and contrasts these with the economic activities of host communities in each location. At the time the research was undertaken, in 2016, Kenya hosted approximately 490,000 refugees. Kakuma Camp, located in Turkana County, hosted 200,000 refugees, the majority from South Sudan and Somalia, and smaller numbers from DRC, Ethiopia and Burundi. Nairobi is home to approximately 15 percent of Kenya’s refugee population, hosting more than 65,000 refugees, the majority from Somalia (more than 30,000) and DRC (around 18,000).

The analysis is based on qualitative research conducted in Kakuma Camp and Nairobi between 2016 and 2017, including semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, and non-participant observations. In addition to 74 refugee respondents, 32 non-refugee stakeholders were interviewed, including government officials, UNHCR staff, members of partner agencies, and individuals from host communities.


Findings in Kakuma camp:

  • Farming is limited due to the arid climate and poor soil quality, however refugees engage in a range of commercial activities. Enterprises in the camp offer a range of goods and services, including banking, carpentry, clothing, electrical equipment, groceries, and medicines, as well as bars, internet cafes, restaurants, and salons. Businesses operate informally, however since around 2014, the county government in Turkana has required refugees to register their informal enterprises and pay a fee for a business license.
  • An important source of livelihoods in the camp is work for UNHCR and its implementing partners. Refugees are engaged on a voluntary basis and are paid ‘incentives’, which are significantly lower than the wage received by Kenyans for equivalent work.
  • Refugees in Kakuma are prohibited from keeping livestock and from cutting down trees for charcoal production. These restrictions have generated economic opportunities for impoverished host communities who have established a monopoly on livestock, firewood, and charcoal markets buoyed by the presence of refugees.
  • Refugees frequently cite restrictions on freedom of movement as a major impediment to establishing livelihoods; refugees are not permitted to sell their products and services outside of the camp. Nevertheless, there is frequent trade between the camp and nearby Kakuma town, to which refugees can walk freely. Some refugee business owners purchase merchandise from Kenyan counterparts in other commercial centers (usually through Kenyan brokers), and there is a commercial bus service between Kakuma and Nairobi. Some refugee households (in particular Somali refugees) send family members outside the camp to seek economic opportunities.
  • Refugees in Kakuma regularly experience harassment (for bribes) by police, even inside the camp, in contrast to the way that host communities are treated by police.
  • Government of Kenya’s announcement in May 2016 of the closure of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps, justified by deteriorating security and environmental issues, has affected refugees’ economic planning. Although authorities later exempted Kakuma from the plan, refugees are still feeling the psychological impact of the announcement.


Findings in Nairobi:

  • Although official policy requires refugees to live in camps, enforcement at the local or community level in Nairobi has been relaxed. While work permits are difficult to acquire, many refugees are able to obtain business licenses from the City Council of Nairobi and start their own enterprises.
  • With precarious legal status, refugees in Nairobi confront increased risk of harassment and extortion by the police, compared to the host population. Somali refugees in particular have been targeted by the police.
  • Limited access to the justice system is one of the major differences between refugees and Kenyans.
  • Nairobi features the presence of a large Somali-Kenyan population. Taking advantage of ethnic and religious bonds, many Somali refugees have found income-generating opportunities in Eastleigh (the neighborhood where the Somali-Kenyan population is concentrated). Popular activities include selling clothing and cooked meals, and other casual jobs, including working as porters, shopkeepers, and waiters. Some Somali refugees have started business ventures jointly with Kenyans, which has enabled them to avoid bureaucratic hurdles imposed on refugees while decreasing vulnerability to police harassment.
  • In contrast to the high concentration of Somali refugees in the Eastleigh neighborhood, refugees from DRC are scattered throughout the city. Congolese refugees speak Swahili and can ‘blend in’ more easily. Perceptions of them are generally positive and cordial, and Congolese refugees find casual labor among their Kenyan neighbors. As Congolese refugees tend to accept lower payment compared to nationals, Kenyan business owners often prefer to hire them for casual labor tasks.
  • Refugees are largely forced to eke out a living in the informal economy and, in the case of Congolese refugees, frequently to accept payment at lower than ordinary rates.


The findings from Kakuma and Nairobi together provide the following insights:

  • Refugees pursue livelihoods in a complex regulatory context, involving multiple institutional actors. The national government enforces restrictions on refugees’ right to work and to move freely within Kakuma. UNHCR provides some economic opportunities for refugees in Kakuma, but for ‘incentives’ lower than wages provided to Kenyans for similar work. Turkana host populations impose local restrictions on refugees’ economic activities by prohibiting them from selling charcoal, firewood, and meat. In Nairobi, local host communities are accommodating refugees and the City Council of Nairobi offers registration of the business activities of refugees.
  • Refugee status affects livelihoods differently depending on whether a refugee seeks employment or self-employment. The national government rarely grants work permits to refugees, however the county government in Turkana is attempting to ‘formalize’ refugee businesses to derive tax revenue, and a number of refugee businesses are officially registered with the City Council of Nairobi. Self-employment of refugees presents financial incentives, through the collection of registration fees, and possibly also by creating employment opportunities for Kenyans.
  • Refugees are vulnerable to unofficial forms of discrimination and harassment. Police corruption is a feature of the Kenyan economy, however refugees, especially those from Somalia, are more susceptible to police abuse due to their precarious legal status and limited access to justice in Nairobi. In both camp and urban settings, bribes and ‘fees’ charged by the local authorities also generate additional transaction costs for refugees’ livelihoods.
  • Depending on their nationality, refugees pursue different livelihood strategies and have different relations with host communities. The contrasting patterns of settlement between Somali and Congolese refugees in Nairobi highlight different kinds of networks established with Kenyan hosts and how these contacts serve as ‘mediating factors’ in their pursuit of livelihoods. The existing Somali-Kenyan community in Eastleigh provides Somali refugees with ethnic protection and access to a ‘safe space’ to run commercial activities. Congolese refugees cannot rely on ethnic community networks to the same extent, but their competency in the Swahili language enables them to develop connections with ethnically unrelated Kenyan nationals and explore casual employment opportunities.
  • While the nature of the support of aid organizations tends to be the provision of technical assistance, aid organizations need to take into account the economic obstacles associated with being a refugee.
  • Being a refugee entails persistent forms of uncertainty and unpredictability, which are more observable in the camp context. For example, the closure announcement by the Government of Kenya demonstrated to camp residents the precariousness of their life in exile, and left many questioning whether they should invest in their camp businesses.


The author concludes that, while some Kenyans face challenges similar to those facing refugees, refugees also face unique political, legal, and policy-related challenges that affect their livelihood prospects. Additionally, there is a need to focus a political economy lens on refugee livelihoods, demonstrating how they are constrained, mediated, or enabled by a range of variables and numerous formal and informal actors according to their agendas and motives.