More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.
By Flavie Halais
NAIROBI, Kenya — “Karibu,” Astar says, using one of Kenya’s official languages, Swahili, to welcome shoppers into her market stall. As customers pop in to look at the dress shirts and trousers on display, the 29-year-old shopkeeper quickly gets down to business. She bargains over prices and makes some sales, enough to bring home about US$70 per month.
Astar is from Ethiopia, and dresses in the white embroidered robes of the Amharic people, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. She fled Addis Ababa five years ago with her husband, who had been jailed for what she calls “political problems.” After his release they feared further persecution by the government — I’ve withheld their last name for her family’s safety. Astar and her husband went directly to Nairobi, avoiding Kenya’s crowded refugee camps, and settled with the growing urban community of Ethiopian expatriates in a neighborhood called Eastleigh.
Astar sells clothes out of Amal Plaza, a crammed multi-story shopping center located on Eastleigh’s main street. The mall is staffed largely with refugees from nearby countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Eritrea — people who since the early 1990s have been fleeing conflict or insecurity back home for a comparably more peaceful life in Kenya.
The customers are a diverse lot as well. Many are Kikuyus — members of Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Others are Kenyans of Somali descent. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers living in the neighborhood shop here too. Sellers easily switch between languages, having picked them up from each other. “For business, communication is a must,” sums up Fahmi Mohamed Yunis, a Nairobi-born Kenyan who runs the next stall down from Astar’s, and speaks with her in Amharic.
The multicultural commerce going on every day at Amal Plaza shows a little noticed side of the many refugee crises dominating the news lately. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than half of all refugees around the world live in cities. Despite the common image of desperate people marooned in troubled camps, many millions of refugees are more like Astar — deeply and productively settled into the daily economic life of cities.
Eastleigh may be one of the most tangible examples of how urban refugees contribute to the economy of their host countries. Known as “Little Mogadishu” for the ties many residents share with Somalia, the neighborhood is bursting with shopping malls, restaurants and hotels occupied by business travelers. Much of the economic activity is fuelled on cheap refugee labor — a lucky few have official work permits but many others work informally.
Although there are no official figures, Omar Ahmed Nooh of the Eastleigh Business District Association estimates that commerce in the area generates the equivalent of about US$30 million a year in tax revenue for the Kenyan government.
Yet many national governments have been slow to see the worth in integrating refugees into the economic and social fabric of their cities. That’s certainly been the case in Europe where right-wing voices are rising against acceptance of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It’s also true in Kenya, where the national leadership has generally preferred to see refugees remain in camps. Refugees living in Kenya’s cities are subjected to harassment by police on a daily basis, according to several human rights reports. Many have seen their work permits withheld.
A 2014 terrorism-related crackdown on Somali refugees in Kenya saw thousands of them forcibly sent to the world’s largest refugee camp, known as Dadaab. With 330,000 residents, Dadaab is larger than all but two cities in Kenya. Citing security concerns as well as the economic burden of hosting refugees, Kenya’s government has announced plans to close Dadaab by the end of the year. The mostly Somali refugees would either be sent back home or to other countries.
The international aid community has not been well equipped for the influx of urban refugees either. The emergency-response orientation of most humanitarian assistance programs leaves little room for longer-term thinking about settling refugees in growing metropolitan areas. As recently as 1997, UNHCR had an explicitly anti-urban official policy. “Life in urban areas does not constitute an answer to a refugee’s problems and may well be significantly more difficult than in a rural settlement,” it stated.
Lately, the conversation has been changing. UNHCR has enacted new policies aimed at steering humanitarian action toward cities. First came the 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas, targeted at setting operational guidelines for the agency’s country operations. Later came the 2014 policy on alternatives to camps, which addressed the need to assist refugees in becoming self-reliant, both in cities and rural areas.
The topic of refugees and cities came up recently at the UN during a high-level event on migrant and refugee flows, when the UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stressed that urban refugees were “largely overlooked” by humanitarian assistance. He also called for the international community to stop stigmatizing refugees and migrants and recognize their positive contributions to their host countries. The subject also came up at last week’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. A report issued ahead of the summit by the office of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the need to collaborate with local authorities in order to better assist refugees.
However, the issue is fraught with politics. And UNHCR, which sets the agenda for humanitarian action through its policies and funding, has been reluctant to come out too strongly in favor of integrating refugees in their host communities.
“On one hand, UNHCR has wanted to demonstrate the positive contributions that refugees can make,” says Jeff Crisp, the agency’s former head of policy development, who was involved in drafting the 2009 policy on urban refugees. “At the same time, the High Commissioner is coming under enormous pressure from developing countries such as Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India to concede the fact that refugees pose enormous burdens on the host country.”
In Eastleigh, these decisions have a direct impact on the daily lives of residents. Stories abound here of refugees who left Nairobi to follow the migrant route to Europe. Fahmi Mohamed Yunis, Astar’s neighbor at Amal Plaza, says he knew at least 10 people among the 400 migrants who died when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean last April. Poverty, discrimination and police harassment are causing waves of “multiple displacement” — that is, refugees fleeing a second time for economic or security reasons.
Tensions sometimes run high in Eastleigh. The neighborhood gets a lot of negative attention because al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked terror group behind deadly terrorist attacks at a Kenyan university and shopping mall, has been known to recruit from local mosques and religious schools here. Many Kenyans and foreigners alike have avoided the area since a set of explosions ripped through its streets in 2012 and 2013.
At the same time, community networks are strong in Eastleigh, and refugees are keen to stand up for each other in times of hardship. Trust is often cited as one of the underlying factors that enable economic activity, especially within the Somali community. That is how Aideed, an 18-year-old refugee who fled Somalia in 2013 after losing his entire family to conflict, started working as a taxi driver. He struck a deal with a friend who agreed to rent him his car and granted him credit for the first week. “Business is not booming that much, but we’re maintaining,” he says. Aideed hopes he’ll soon receive a much-awaited call from UNHCR telling him he’s been accepted for resettlement to a western country.
A number of factors in Kenya are pushing refugees to live in urban areas like this. One is the deteriorating living conditions in the refugee camps, as food rations in Dadaab and another camp called Kakuma have been cut in half by the cash-strapped World Food Programme. Security in both camps has deteriorated as well, with violent intrusions from local armed bands, occasional clashes between local tribes and, in the case of Dadaab, attacks by al-Shabaab militants.
By contrast, many refugees view cities as places of opportunity. The bustle of a place like Eastleigh is an escape from the idleness that often sets in after years spent in the camps. And urban neighborhoods offer a better chance to get to know residents of the host country — it’s the kind of thing that happens naturally every day at Amal Plaza without any intervention of humanitarian agencies, NGOs or government programs.
Life in the camps “is so hard,” explains Aideed, the taxi driver. “That’s why I had to come here.”
Support in the cities
Sonia Ben Ali thinks there’s room to bring the humanitarian community around to a more community-based approach to assisting urban refugees.
Ben Ali is the executive director of Urban Refugees, an advocacy group and network of organizations working with refugees and internally displaced persons living in developing countries. She says it’s a big challenge for humanitarian organizations whose expertise was forged in the camps to transition to serving urban populations with much different needs.
“These organizations have always worked in emergency settings, but they’re now required to do a radically different type of work,” Ben Ali says. “For instance, negotiating with municipal authorities isn’t the same as managing food rations delivery. It requires negotiation and advocacy skills.”
Based in Paris and New York, Urban Refugees builds capacity among community, youth and faith-based groups — including many run by refugees themselves. Some of these groups are doing the most impactful work anywhere with refugees in urban settings. One of them, Young African Refugees for Integral Development, founded and run by Congolese refugees, recently gainedinternational recognition for its work in Kampala, Uganda. The group addresses issues such as poverty, ethnic tensions among refugee groups and lack of education through skills-training, sports and language programs.
“These support groups play a key role in the protection of their communities,” Ben Ali explains. Yet the aid community often ignores them as partners for distributing humanitarian assistance because of their lack of formal structure.
Responding to this challenge, Urban Refugees has launched a new six-month incubation program to help local groups increase their visibility and gain the skills needed to become financially sustainable.
The incubator is now running a pilot project in the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur, which has taken in refugees from Bosnia, Afghanistan and Syria, among other countries. There, Ben Ali’s group is training the leaders of a local organization run by refugees in project management, fundraising and how to build relationships in the development and humanitarian sectors. Urban Refugees also has developed an SMS-based messaging service called SMS Up, designed to help group leaders and community members who may not have access to internet-based communications tools such as Facebook or What’s App.
Based on outcomes from the pilot project, Urban Refugees hopes to attract funding to spread the incubator model to other refugee-hosting cities in the developing world. Ben Ali’s ultimate goal is to help refugee-run organizations win a seat at the tables where decisions regarding humanitarian assistance are made — and where refugees themselves are usually nowhere to be found.
Such a community-based approach would be welcome in Eastleigh, where few humanitarian NGOs are present, but where refugee groups abound. One of those groups, Eastleighwood, is working to showcase Somali culture in a positive light by producing feature films and teaching classes in film production. The group also aims to foster peaceful relations with other nationalities and Kenyans alike.
Other refugee groups are working through mosques, churches or clinics to address hot topics like poverty, radicalization and violence. In spite of adverse living conditions, recurring threats of deportation and the constant fear of police harassment, Eastleigh’s refugees seem determined to keep their neighborhood peaceful and demonstrate gratitude toward their host country.
“Kenya people are so good,” Astar tells me, before quickly turning back to welcome her next customer. “They have a good heart.”