Nairobi, KENYA



Concerned population



Source: Hidden and exposed: urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, March 2010


As of 2013, Kenya hosted approximately 600,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. As of January 2013, 56,000 asylum seekers and refugees were registered with UNHCR in Nairobi and other urban centres in Kenya. The largest segment of this group is comprised of Somalis (33,844), followed by Ethiopians (10,568), and nationals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (7,046). A minority comes from Eritrea, South Sudan and the Great Lakes. (UNHCR,


Highly mobile population, in spite of the encampment rule (see below). According to UNHCR 2010 figures, there were almost as many women as men among the urban refugee population of Nairobi.

Displacement pattern

  • From the Country of Origin (COO) to Nairobi: Many refugees arriving from their COO decide to settle directly in urban areas without stopping in any the refugee camp (at least 10% of the refugees approaching the office in Nairobi were previously registered in one of the camps).
  • From the city centre of Nairobi to its outskirts: due to the high living costs in the inner-city of Nairobi, refugees are increasingly moving to the peripheral areas of the capital city
  • From Nairobi to other urban areas: refugees are also moving from Nairobi to other cities such as Kisumu, Mombasa and Nakuru.

Legal framework


1951 Convention: signatory
1967 Protocol: signatory


1969 OAU Convention: signatory


Refugee Act, 2007

Relocation of Urban Refugees to Officially Designated Camps Order, 16 January 2013: the Government of Kenya, more specifically the Department for Refugee Affairs (DRA) under the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons has the overall responsibility for all administration, coordination and management of refugee matters. The Government of Kenya has directed that refugees must reside in designated camps to qualify for assistance. Kenya considers itself as only a country of asylum for as long as a refugee has a mandate, is in the process of acquiring or renewing one. Under international law, it is the responsibility of UNHCR to supervise the implementation of the 1951 Convention and monitor the protection of refugees. UNHCR took over the responsibility of refugee affairs management and RSD in 1992 from the Kenyan government following the continued increase and influx of refugees. (Refugee Consortium of Kenya)

Country context

  • 1970: Influxes of Uganda refugees fleeing violence
  • End of 1980′s:  The idea of a refugee law is formally proposed at the government level. Kenya is continuing to experience an influx of refugees from Uganda.
  • Early 1990´s:  A draft Refugee Bill is prepared; refugee camps (Daddab and Kakuma) in remote and insecure parts of the country after the arrival of refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia are created. Camps were deemed to be the more appropriate way to host refugees, as they would facilitate the control, registration and an eventual repatriation of the refugee population.
  • 1992: There is a sharp increase in crime and illegal arms into the country. Refugees and foreigners are blamed for this. The Government hands over the responsibility for RSD and management to UNHCR.
  • 1995-1997: Camps in urban areas are gradually closed down and are amalgamated to Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, which ultimately become bigger camps.
  • 1999: The Government holds wider consultations with civil society actors including the Refugee Consortium Kenya and other NGOs; and the Bill is revised, becoming the Refugee Bill 2000.
  • 2006: New influxes of refugees from Somalia. The Refugee Bill is re-published (after its expiry in 2003) and becomes the Refugee Bill 2006.
  • 2011: Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs begins opening registration offices in four cities (in addition to the office already in Nairobi). In cooperation with schools and hospitals, key services are extended to urban refugees and small businesses run by refugees received support. All of these things demonstrated a willingness on the part of Kenya to accept a central tenet of UNHCR’s 2009 global urban refugee policy.
  • 2012: Dabaab the world’s biggest refugee camp became 20 years old. In December, a directive was issued by the Government to transfer refugees from urban areas to the refugee camps at Dadaab and Kakuma and to shut down all registration and service provision to refugees and asylum-seekers in cities.
  • 2013: On 26 July the High Court of Kenya’s ruled against the directive and for upholding the asylum right of urban refugees. The directive had particularly dire consequences for the protection and well being of refugee communities in Nairobi and other cities in the country that began to report increased police harassment, detention and extortion. Many of them could not move about freely and fear of such treatment led to hundreds of Somali refugees returning to Somalia or moving to neighbouring countries.
  • 2013: On 10 November, a Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR, the Governments of Kenya and Somalia, sets out a legal framework for returns to Somalia. It specifies that all returns should be voluntary and take place in safety and dignity. There is no deadline in the agreement for the returns.
  • 2013-2014: Large influx from South-Sudan
  • 2014: In May, High Court judge David Majanja issues orders stopping Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku from moving the foreigners in Nairobi, and other urban centres, to a refugee camp. The judge issued the orders following an application by nine petitioners on behalf of 500 aliens who claim to have invested heavily in Eastleigh. The case will be heard in the presence of all parties on May 27.

Protection concerns

  • Arbitrary arrest and extortion by police agents who ask refugees for bribes in exchange of their freedom. Refugees are even surnamed “ATMs”, highlighting the easiness with which policemen extort them on a daily basis.
  • Xenophobic incidents with Kenyan citizens who are very suspicious towards Somali refugees for there assumed association with terrorism and piracy activities (exacerbated after the Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi in September 2013). Kenyan authorities are particularly concerned by the flow of small arms from Somalia in urban areas.
  • Numerous unaccompanied minors are engaged in survival sex and do not receive sufficient attention up to now.
  • Refugees settled outside Nairobi in other city centres. Those refugees do not have access to UNHCR services and are left outside its protection scope.
  • Very high number of unregistered urban refugees.


UNHCR operation


  • 1990 – 2000, Promotion of encampment: UNHCR encouraged refugees to settle in camps, thus tacitly agreeing on the encampment policy promoted by the government. UNHCR assistance was very limited in the capital city and very few refugees were provided with legal documentation enabling them to reside in Nairobi.
  • 2001- 2007, Consideration of urban refugees’ needs: In 2001, a resettlement scandal erupted, in which UNHCR staff members were proved to be involved in corrupted activities in Nairobi. From there on, the Nairobi Initiative was launched, aiming at better responding to the needs of urban refugees.
  • 2006- onwards, Proactive and well established urban programme:  In 2006, the government of Kenya changed its policy towards refugees and passed the Refugee Act Law. UNHCR started developing a set of activities related to urban refugees and has increased its partnerships with other organizations.
  • In 2009 UNHCR changed its policy towards refugees in cities and towns and developed a global urban refugee policy, of which Kenya is part.
  • In 2014-2015, UNHCR will continue to count on the hospitality and support extended to asylum-seekers and refugees by the Government and people of Kenya. This includes: access to public health services for over 50,000 urban refugees and medical referrals from the camps; and integration of some 8,000 urban-based refugee children and adolescents into local learning institutions.


Kenya’s global displacement needs and UNHCR’s financial requirements to respond have risen over recent years, from USD 185.7 million in 2010 to a revised 2013 budget of USD 251.6 million. This growth was driven primarily by successive influxes and the need to respond to emergencies. In 2014, the financial requirements for UNHCR’s operation in Kenya have decreased by USD 22.6 million to USD 229 million, when compared to the revised 2013 budget. This is largely due to the Dadaab population verification, which revealed approximately 20 per cent fewer people than the 2009-2010 verification, owing to departures and demographic trends.

Online resources:

Amnesty International, 2012, Kenya’s decision to confine refugees and asylum-seekers in camps is unlawful

Campbell E. 2006. Urban Refugees in Nairobi: Problems of Protection, Mechanisms of Survival, and Possibilities for Integration, in Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 396-413.

Campbell E., Crisp J. and Kiragu E. 2011. A review of the implementation of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy in Kenya’s capital city, UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) (Geneva).

Human Rights Watch. 2013, Kenya: Don’t Force 55,000 Refugees Into Camps

Human Rights Watch. 2013. You are all Terrorist Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi (May)

Karanja L. 2010. “The Educational Pursuits and Obstacles for Urban Refugee Students in Kenya”, in the International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 1, Issue 3

Kituo Cha Sheria and others v. The Attorney General, Kenya: High Court, 26 July 2013

Refugee Consortium Kenya. 2014. Standard-Refugees ordered to relocate to Kakuma, Dadaab camps as urban registration centers shut. (March)

Office of the Kenyan President.2013. Order for Relocation of Urban Refugees to Officially Designated Camps (January)

Republic of Kenya, the Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2013. Tripartite Agreement Between the Governing the Voluntary Repatriation of Somali Refugees Living in Kenya

Metcalfe V., Pavanello S. and Mishra P. 2011. Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability in Nairobi, London, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute (London).

Pavanello S., Elhawary S. and Pantuliano S. 2010. Hidden and Exposed Urban Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper, Overseas Development Institute (London).

UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council. 2012. Living on the Edge: A Livelihood Status Report on Urban Refugees Living in Nairobi, Kenya

UNHCR. 2014. Kenya: UNHCR disturbed by arrests and deportations of Somali refugees

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