An inclusive Nairobi? Refugee accounts of life in the city

Kenya has pursued an encampment policy since 1991, but around 16% of refugees in Kenya live in urban areas. This project uses innovative methodologies to document refugee accounts of life in Nairobi and to highlight the potential of a more strategic urban response to displacement.

February 2022 – July 2024
Deena Dajani

Senior researcher, Human Settlements

Urban crises and forced displacement
A programme of work bringing together diverse perspectives on humanitarian emergencies and forced displacement, to inform new directions in urban crisis response
Street scene with multistorey flats and market stalls.

Eastleigh neighbourhood, in Nairobi (Photo: Koch Films)

Kenya is currently home to approximately 744,000 refugees and asylum seekers. In the early 1990s, Kenya introduced an encampment policy requiring all refugees to reside in camps established and managed with UNHCR. Despite this, around 16% of all refugees in Kenya live in urban areas.

Nairobi is home to most of them and is widely recognised as having benefitted from refugee enterprise. Neighbourhoods where refugees settled, such as Eastleigh, have become major commerce hubs. This buoyant economy relies and thrives on the ethnic and religious diversity and openness of those neighbourhoods, brought about by displacement. Yet refugees continue to face exclusion and undue complications in the pursuit of a dignified life.

With the passage of the 2021 Refugee Act there is increased public debate concerning the integration of urban refugees. The new legislation has the potential to improve the situation of urban refugees and their contributions to Kenya’s future.

This presents an opportunity to ensure that refugee voices and experiences of life in the city are recognised and acknowledged, and that those voices inform the changes in policy and programming that will be needed to implement the Refugee Act at the city level.


The ‘Living in difference and in common: urban refugees and convivial cultures in Nairobi’ project is led by IIED in close partnership with SDI-Kenya and a Nairobi-based filmmaking studio, Koch Films. The partnership supports the use of innovative methodologies that bring together research and artistic production to document refugee stories and experiences in the city.

We aim to identify how Nairobi is creating a simultaneously enabling and disabling environment for its urban refugees. This evidence will be used to produce policy recommendations for local and national government, and for humanitarian agencies, to influence policy and practice.

It will also inform the making of a documentary film, working closely with refugee participants, that stimulates debate on Nairobi as a host city.

An intersectional lens informs the project’s aims, implementation and outputs.  

What is IIED doing?

IIED and partners will conduct long-form interviews with refugees while walking around the city (‘walking methods’). The interviews will identify how refugees’ experiences of inclusion and exclusion intersect with the city’s physical and social infrastructures. These will also contribute to a documentary.

To ensure that the film speaks to and represents their voices and stories, refugee participants will be invited to provide feedback and input on several iterations of the film.

IIED and partners will also engage municipal and national stakeholders by sharing findings, screening the film and outlining the policy changes needed to create a more enabling environment that supports refugee wellbeing and benefits Nairobi’s vibrant culture and economy. 

The activities aim to:

  • Increase policymaker and public understanding of the undue complications faced by urban refugees, as well as their social, cultural and economic contributions to the city
  • Expand awareness of the intersectional dimensions of inclusion and exclusion faced by different refugee groups, including  LGBTQI+ refugees, and 
  • Support evidence-based engagement with local and national government to inform changes in policy and programming that can support a more strategic urban response to displacement through the implementation of the Refugee Act at the city level. 

Additional resources

Exploring new approaches to urban refugee hosting in Kenya, Lucy Earle, Boel McAteer, Patricia Garcia Amado, Alison Brown (2023), IIED policy briefing

Somali refugees in Kenya: increasing camp-urban mobility, Boel McAteer, Patricia Carcia Amado, Akvile Krisciunaite, Michael Owiso (2023), IIED working paper