Refugees! Nairobi’s Urban Planning Concern: Solutions and Challenges

November 27,2012 Are refugees an urban planning issue? Yes.

Gone are the days when the description of refugees was some tented camps in the middle of nowhere. Political instability, increasing human conflicts and climate change related disasters have led to a surge in the number of refugees and displaced persons worldwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the number of people of concern (refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless people, etc.) to be more than 35 million. The UNHCR is currently in charge of 10.5 million refugees spread across the globe.  Of these, more than half reside in urban areas.

Africa hosts 20% of the world’s refugees, with about 2 million in the eastern Horn of Africa and especially in Kenya. For a long time, Kenya served as a haven of peace to refugees from neighboring war torn and famine prone countries: Somalia, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and DR Congo. Traditionally, refugees in Kenya were held in camps (Kakuma and Daadab) far from urban areas. However, as the world continues to urbanize, refugees too are moving into urban areas in search of better livelihoods. Nairobi currently hosts about 52,000 refugees. Given their limited access to resources, they end up in informal settlements and low income communities. This poses a challenge to the Government and urban planning authorities to rethink their planning policies. According to UNHCR, there are three durable solutions to refugee populations: repatriation to the country of origin, integration in to host country or resettlement to a third country.

Daadab Refugee Camp in Kenya

Dr. Ronak Patel from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative suggests that an appropriate solution to the refugees in Nairobi would be integration into the local urban communities. According to Dr. Patel, this would leverage development resources from humanitarian organizations and benefit local communities. Other researchers have also argued that refugees contribute to the economy of Nairobi and Kenya at large and that proper integration would serve to harness these benefits. While these arguments might be true, various challenges exist to undermine this alternative/response.

The influx of refugees in any country is always perceived as a threat to the stability of existing population and limited resources. In Kenya, refugees are now perceived as a threat to the country’s security and economic prosperity. This is fueled by the recent security threats and bombings in the capital, which have adversely affected the tourism sector.  A bombing on Sunday November 18th reinforced this perception. A Matatu ferrying residents to one of the city estates was allegedly bombed by a man thought to be a refugee from Somalia leaving seven people dead and several injured. Immediately, ethnic clashes erupted between the locals and Somalis in Eastleigh Estate in Nairobi. The locals blame the Somalis for the insecurity that has befallen the country in the last few months.

Wreckage of the Matatu that was bombed leaving seven people dead.

Youths Fighting Residents of Eastleigh after the Matatu Bombing on 18th November 2012

Refugee integration would also be hampered by limited resources and a feeling of deprivation from the host communities who view refugees as competitors to the already scarce resources. While the notion that refugees contribute to the economy of the country could be true, the question still remains: Can the benefits of integrating them outweigh the costs? Refugees now own part of the City of Nairobi called Eastleigh which locals prefer to call “Little Mogadishu” attributed to its inhabitant’s majority of whom are of Somali descent. Eastleigh is home to the greatest and cheapest domestic ware and clothing shopping malls in Nairobi. It’s now Kenya’s “Dubai”. Although this might sound great, the feeling from local businesses is that it’s depriving them of market due to its cheap goods, which are allegedly smuggled into the country.  Besides Eastleigh being an economic hub for the Somalis, there is substantial evidence that it also serves as the recruiting base and hiding place for the Al-Shaabab Militia who are perceived as a security menace to the country. Shopping Malls in Eastleigh Nairobi

Given the history of refugees in Kenya, integration policies could be one of the answers. However, the above allegations whether real or perceived raise several questions: to what level should refugees be integrated to the local communities, what are the risks involved, does the government have the right resources and needed mechanisms to safely implement such policies without comprising the stability of the nation, and finally are the locals ready for such a thrust?

Keziah Mwelu is a First year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley Interested in Urban Development and Housing Policy.