Contributions of women refugees to livelihoods in urban displacements in Nairobi, Kenya

Forced Migration, Global Policies, Legal Approaches and Citizenship

by Nancy Njoka and Manuela Ramos

Women refugees account for most forcibly displaced persons in Africa. This group faces a variety of challenges that are often different from those of refugee men, especially in urban areas where there are limited protection efforts. Some of these challenges include poor education, gender-based abuse and high levels of poverty. In their efforts to pursue livelihoods, refugee women have adopted strategies to confront these difficulties. Examples of such strategies can be found at the neighborhood of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Unlike the thousands of refugees living in Kenya ‘s refugee camps, refugees in urban areas are a largely hidden population and very little is known about their numbers, profile, status, location and livelihoods. In Nairobi, refugees have been absorbed into the urban fabric, are dispersed over the city and are highly mobile. The urban refugee women are confronted by many risks in their efforts to fend for their families in a place where they are marginalized by their own cultural and religious beliefs as well as by the national laws and policies.

Nairobi is a central port for Somali diaspora, part of which is formed by Somali refugee women. The neighborhood of Eastleigh functions as a cargo port, a major node for commerce providing goods for Eastern Africa. Somali women refugees have played a big role in transforming this location into a business hub commonly referred to as “little Mogadishu”, where they run distinctive businesses especially the restaurants and apparel business. As a result, they are able to provide for their households.

This group in Nairobi experiences various obstacles and enablers when it comes to access to livelihoods assets. The key obstacle stems from the tight encampment policy that requires all the refugees to stay in the camps. Although refugees have been allowed to engage in informal employment in the past, the encampment policy has made it even more difficult since accessing work permits is next to impossible. Humanitarian actors that work with refugee women have come up with different interventions to promote access to livelihoods working through obstacles and barriers created by host governments.
This project seeks to understand the experience of Somali women refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya, both by investigating their own actions towards creating avenues to access livelihoods and by understanding their social, economic, gender and policy context in which they forge livelihoods.

The empirical data collected through fieldwork in Nairobi will serve as the basis of a qualitative case study. Building on recent studies on gender and migration that emphasize the agency of Somali urban women refugees in creating avenues to access livelihoods, this project has explored the role of women refugees in forging livelihoods and how the actions of the Kenyan government and NGOs affect them.


Manuela Ramos

Manuela Ramos is a Youth Development Advocate with expertise in human rights and migration issues. She has a MSc background of MSc. IDS and Communication studies at Roskilde University and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism at the University of Zaragoza. Recently, she completed a qualitative fieldwork and policy analysis on access to livelihoods for refugees in Kenya as part of her master’s thesis. She has also conducted research in the areas of citizenship, urban development, participatory communications, and LGBTQ+ rights in Kenya. Her main interest is to implement participatory and community-based approaches in marginalized groups through qualitative and ethnographic research.

Nancy Njoka

Nancy Njoka is a migration and development researcher with experience and education in migration, forced displacement, International Development and Communication. Professionally, she has been working with Humanitarian and Human rights organisations both in Kenya and Denmark addressing migration discourses. In her master’s program at Roskilde University, she completed and excelled in two qualitative research projects that focused on livelihoods in urban displacements and LGBTQIA+ rights in Kenya. Her main interests within research include participatory research, urban displacement and livelihoods of migrants and refugees, migration policy and Laws, through qualitative and ethnographic research.