Trapped in camps or struggling in the city: the realities facing Somali refugee women in Kenya

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I travelled to Eastleigh, a bustling neighbourhood around five miles east of Nairobi’s central business district. Eastleigh has a high number of Somali refugees.

On first glance it looks like a thriving business hub. You might assume the people here, the business owners and the customers, were well-off.

The women refugees I met were living on the margins, on the edge of the hustle and bustle. Most had turned to hawking goods as the only way to make money. They sell mainly food and vegetables, sometimes clothes or shoes. It’s bitterly hard work for very little pay. One woman I spoke to told me she made 700 KES (US$7) a day.

And the life of a street hawker is precarious and dangerous. They clash with rent-paying shop owners who see hawkers as stealing their trade. They are chased away by city council officials. If caught they are arrested and can only avoid prison by paying a bribe.

The women I spoke to were desperate. They barely made enough money to feed themselves. I met mothers with sick children and no money to take them to healthcare facilities; mothers with no one to turn to.

Rent for refugees is extortionate. They do receive some housing support – around 5000 KES ($50) for three months. But rent in Eastleigh is typically 10,000 KES ($100) per month. This leaves them barely able to keep a roof over their heads.

Education in the city is better than in the camps. Primary education is free for Kenyans and should be free for refugees who are registered in the city. But many don’t know this and are asked to pay anyway. So their children don’t go to school because the books, too, are expensive.


I spoke to a young mother who fled to Nairobi from Somalia. One of her children is autistic. She hawks in the afternoon, so she can provide for her children.

Without any family to rely on, she married – but her husband does not support her. There is no support from the authorities, she explained.

Registered urban refugees who manage to reach the UNHCR offices can at times be offered support, for example a small cash grant or referral to a partner organisation. But the journey to get there is long, and transport is expensive, so most refugees receive nothing.

And yet, despite every day in the city being a struggle to survive, the young mother explained why she preferred life here to Dadaab. She shared with me the trauma she experienced:

“Life was very difficult in the camp; it cannot be compared with life in Nairobi. People in Nairobi help each other unlike there, they only help their relatives out. There was scarcity of water, the heat was too much, I used to sleep outside and feared for my life because there were times where ‘people’ would attack you, and rape girls.”

Ways forward?

For those women living in camps, moving to the city is not an option. Those living in the city prefer life there because life in camps was so traumatic.

All the women I spoke to want the same thing: access to good, essential services; opportunities; respect; freedom.

Towns and cities could have the potential to offer freedom and opportunities. There may be better housing, education and employment prospects.

But based on the realities of these women, neither the systems nor support are in place to make any of that accessible. And many fear leaving the camp despite the very harsh conditions there.

The difficulties of leaving the camp make these women feel like staying in the open prison of Dadaab camp is the only option for them. It is also making life unbelievably difficult for most refugees who manage to leave. And women are not feeling safe in either place.

In this no-win situation, neither camp nor city option offer a good life for refugees. The government should allow more freedom of movement for refugees stuck in camps and – alongside international donors and humanitarian agencies − channel more money to cities, so refugees can access services enabling opportunities to build a better life.