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In Kenya, a country that today is home to more than 374,000 refugees (UNHCR 2010), there has
been significant attention on the plight of refugees living in overcrowded camps such as Dadaab in the east of the country. Yet there has been little focus on the growing number of refugees living in its urban centers. Indeed, the exact size of the refugee population in the capital city Nairobi is not known. Official figures suggest there are around 46,000 refugees in Nairobi (UNHCR 2010), however unofficial estimates are nearer 100,000 (RCK, 2008; Dix, 2006). Despite these high numbers, both quantitative and qualitative information available on these populations is scarce. Urban refugees are dispersed over big cities, often highly mobile and reluctant to come forward for support due to fears that they could be deported or sent to refugee camps. This makes them a largely ‘invisible’ population, despite their significant need for protection and other support mechanisms.

It is good for us to note here that the urban refugees are protected by refugee, international humanitarian, and human rights law. UNHCR is mandated to protect refugees. In order for a person to have acquired genuine refugee status, they must have crossed an international boundary and be fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution. However, fleeing from a natural disaster across an international boundary does not confer refugee status on a person. It is however regrettable that some refugees avoid crossing through international boarders(boundaries) and even when they are genuine refugees, their refugee status is compromised. Eventually they end up living in cities illegally.
Urban refugees generally live among larger populations of illegal migrants. They rarely reside in designated buildings, but stay with migrant populations or host families. Those individuals who choose to register with UNHCR or host governments invariably have a specific reason for doing so.
In some cases, individuals register because of a need for protection or a desire to obtain assistance or (for refugees) resettlement in a third country. Official recognition of an urban refugee guarantees little more than protection against refoulement – sending a refugee back to his or her country of origin. Refoulement is forbidden if the refugee is at risk of human rights abuses.

Beyond that minimal protection, obtaining legal status for urban refugees does not necessarily provide access to the rights guaranteed by humanitarian and human rights law. Some may question whether registering a refugee in a country where there are no guarantees for the future is really in that individual’s best interest.

Of the estimated 1.1 million refugees in Kenya, 735,800 are assisted by the UNHCR, while some are supported by The European union through - funds for refugees in urban areas.
Was the directive;
The Kenya government move to Stop registration and start relocating of urban refugees to designated refugee camps -Dadaab and Kakuma has received mixed reactions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has rejected Kenya’s decision to remove refugees from towns and put them in camps as the country seeks to curb rising insecurity.
“The Government of Kenya has decided to stop reception, registration and will close down all registrations centres in urban areas with immediate effect,” said the acting Commissioner for the Department of Refugee Affairs Badu Katelo in a press statement(business Daily, 21st January,2013). The registration, would now be done in the camps and refugees living outside would have to go back.
Justification of the move to relocate urban refugee was the urgent need to intensify national security. It has been noted that Kenya has come under terrorist attacks in areas with high populations of foreigners, and also border areas. Whereas some people feel the refugees should be repatriated back home, others think foreigners who pose as refugees are a threat to the nation, some feel vetting, registration and proper documentation should only be done in designated camps. Other people feel it is a sign of a weak government. International organizations feel it is hurried and insensitive to the rights and plights of the refugees many of whom are victims of civil strife in their home countries (Somalia and southern Sudan).
The question I ask : is the government move a contravention of legal rights under the refugee convention?
If the UNHCR is mandated to protect the interests of refugees, how prepared is it to ensure that the refugee rights are protected on transit either to the designated camps or home countries for those who may not meet the qualifications?
If we have international agencies supporting refugees in urban areas-ie from the European Union. What does relocation mean in terms of support to the refugees- livelihoods, health, social needs, education and psychological challenges and hosing translate to?
If women and children had the protection of UNHCR and yet still faced challenges in the cities as noted in my journal on violence against women asylums seekers, is there guarantee that the government and UNHCR will protect women and girl children?
I know very well that matters of national security can not be compromised, but I ask myself, If the security of the country is at stake, does increasing the insecurity of the most vulnerable—women and children who have legally gotten urban refugee status to refugee camps a solution?
i am pretty sure that Urban refugees on hearing the news of government directive to relocate them must have suffered a lot of psychological trauma, and sleepless nights. Imagine, they have houses, they have established businesses, they have children born and raised in cities. They have homes in the cities, and their children access education in the city school. what does the relocation move then mean to them?

My plea is that all those organizations interested in supporting the refugees come together in aid of the urban refugees. Women of good will stand up and support our sisters, now with a lot of anxiety. I may not be very skilled and with enough resources to support them but one thing I know, they all need our help……… they transition.


jacollura's picture

Thank you!

EK, thank you for writing and shedding light on the plight of urban refugees.

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