Somali Refugees in Kenya: Increasing camp-urban mobility

Boel McAteer, Patricia Garcia Amado, Akvile Krisciunaite, and Michael Owiso

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) Working paper (2023)


This working paper examines the wellbeing and ‘displacement economies’ of Somali refugees living in protracted displacement in Kenya, comparing those living in camps to those living in urban areas. Kenya is home to approximately 280,000 Somali refugees, of whom 230,000 live in the Dadaab refugee camp complex in Garissa County, and around 24,000 living in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi. The research was conducted during the period when the 2006 Refugee Act, which enforced Kenya’s encampment policy, was still in effect. Kenya has since adopted a new Refugee Act in 2021 (which came into force in 2022) that provides for the establishment of ‘designated areas’ for refugees but does not explicitly contain an encampment requirement.

The authors developed metrics for five dimensions of refugee wellbeing, including bodily, economic, political, social, and psychosocial wellbeing. ‘Displacement economies’ refers to livelihoods, entrepreneurial activity, and refugees’ contributions to society.

The quantitative analysis is based on a survey of 382 refugees in Dadaab, 315 refugees in Eastleigh and 156 Kenyan nationals in Eastleigh. The data reveals that, on average, Dadaab respondents were slightly older, had larger household size, and had lower educational attainment and literacy rates compared to refugees living in Nairobi. In addition to the quantitative analysis, the authors conducted interviews with refugees, refugee and host-run enterprises, and key informants in Nairobi and Dadaab.

Main findings:

  • Refugees in Nairobi have higher bodily wellbeing compared to those living in Dadaab. This gap is driven by higher food insecurity in Dadaab, where 60 percent of respondents reported insufficient food in the preceding week, compared to 41 percent of women and 25 percent of men in Nairobi. Female-headed households were more food insecure compared to male-headed households in the same locations. Additionally, Dadaab residents were at a disadvantage in the areas of shelter and WASH. Maternal health was also an area of concern for female respondents, particularly in Dadaab.
  • Refugees in Dadaab have lower political wellbeing scores compared to those in Nairobi, with 78 percent not believing they can work legally and 42 percent believing they can’t open a business legally, compared to 33 percent and 16 percent of respondents in Nairobi, respectively. Additionally, 16 percent of respondents in Nairobi feel ‘not at all’ or ‘hardly’ represented, compared to only 6 percent in Dadaab. While refugees in Nairobi are not legally prevented from moving around the city, their mobility is constrained by police harassment, arbitrary arrests, abusive inspections, and bribes.
  • Refugees in Nairobi have higher economic wellbeing than refugees in Dadaab. In Nairobi, 34 percent of refugees reported a comfortable financial situation, compared to only 5 percent in Dadaab. Additionally, 47 percent of refugees in Nairobi can cover their household expenses through work income, while only 11 percent of respondents in Dadaab can do the same. Almost all respondents in Dadaab (99 percent) did not have savings, compared to 41 percent in Nairobi. Furthermore, 84 percent of respondents in Dadaab were unable to borrow, compared with 28 percent of those in Nairobi. Individuals in Dadaab also had lower wealth scores than those in Nairobi. However, refugees in Nairobi had a much wider spread of economic wellbeing scores, and there are still many refugees in the city who are struggling economically.
  • Gender disparities in economic wellbeing are pronounced in both Nairobi and Dadaab, with male refugees exhibiting higher economic wellbeing scores than female refugees, particularly in Nairobi. Female-headed households in Nairobi are especially vulnerable.
  • Social wellbeing is lower in Dadaab and higher for refugee residents sampled in Nairobi. The difference between hosts and urban refugees is less significant.
  • Psychosocial wellbeing scores are similar in Dadaab and Nairobi, with refugees in Nairobi having only slightly better psychosocial health despite better bodily, economic, and social wellbeing. Refugees in Nairobi frequently feel unsupported and like second- class citizens. Long-term camp residents described Dadaab as a prison and a place where it is difficult to feel at home or be hopeful about the future.
  • Refugees in Nairobi have greater livelihood assets compared to those in Dadaab, with higher scores associated with years spent in Kenya and living in the city, and lower scores associated with being female or older.
  • Work is the main source of income for many refugees, especially in Nairobi where aid distribution is low. More than half (54 percent) of refugees in Nairobi were working compared to 25 percent in Dadaab. Only 2 percent of refugee households in Nairobi reported receiving aid, compared to 68 percent in Dadaab. 83 percent of refugee households in Nairobi reported businesses or wages as a main source of income. Livelihoods in Dadaab camp are largely dependent on humanitarian aid provision, with only 33 percent of surveyed men and 16 percent of women working.
  • Refugee businesses in Dadaab make a positive contribution to the local economy, as they are registered with, and paying taxes to, county authorities, getting supplies from host businesses and middlemen, and contributing to the local economy. However, mobility restrictions imposed on refugees impact negatively on livelihoods and wellbeing, and the ability to overcome these restrictions is dependent on networks, particularly trade networks connecting Dadaab and Nairobi.
  • In Nairobi, Somali refugee entrepreneurship has thrived due to partnerships with Somali Kenyans and investment and remittances of the Somali diaspora in a growing local economy. However, female refugee entrepreneurs generally receive less support and find it difficult to access trade Urban refugees are mainly self-employed in trade activities, and the enactment of the 2021 Refugee Act is increasingly enabling them to register their businesses, but there are still issues with refugee documentation and information on rights.

Overall, the results show that refugee wellbeing in Dadaab is consistently lower than in Nairobi, across all wellbeing dimensions, demonstrating the limitations of the camp environment in Dadaab compared to that of Nairobi. Limited out-of-camp mobility for refugees in Dadaab is a key hinderance for both livelihoods and wellbeing within the camp. The authors conclude that, despite the difficulties that come with living as an urban refugee in Nairobi, the city is where refugees find opportunities. The research also highlights the ways in which refugee businesses make positive contributions to the local economies in both Garissa County and Nairobi, through taxes, employment creation, and stronger national, regional, and international trade links.