Life much tougher for refugees living in camps rather than cities

Access to work, housing and enough food much more likely in urban settings than camps.

Press release, 06 December 2022

People who have fled their homes and taken refuge in camps in East Africa are far worse off when it comes to health, housing, hunger and hygiene compared to people who have sought refuge in cities, according to new research from IIED, research organisation Samuel Hall and Cardiff University.

Over half of people surveyed at Aysaita camp in Ethiopia reported not having had enough food in the preceding week, compared to just a fifth in the capital Addis Ababa. Sixty per cent of people in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp hadn’t had enough food, compared to 42% of women and 27% of men who had settled in the Eastleigh suburb of the capital Nairobi.  

Over 40% of women and 35% of men said they didn’t have access to a proper toilet in Aysaita camp, compared to less than 1% in Addis Ababa. In the camp, 63% of residents said they lived in a makeshift shelter with 8% living in no shelter at all. In Addis Ababa, 100% of respondents lived in a house or apartment. 

In Kenya’s Dadaab camp, 30% of people surveyed said they lived in makeshift shelters, with 4% in no shelter at all. But in Eastleigh, Nairobi, 98% of respondents were living in houses or apartments, and the rest in makeshift shelters. 

Lucy Earle, acting director of research on human settlements at IIED, said: “In many parts of the world, setting up camps to deal with the sudden, acute needs of tens of thousands of people fleeing fighting or other catastrophic events has long been used as a way to provide the basics – shelter, water, food and safety.

“But what should be a temporary measure is, in many cases, becoming permanent and our research clearly shows how devastating this can be for people’s wellbeing. It’s much harder for people to build healthy, meaningful lives when they are isolated in camps than when they can integrate and thrive in the city."

Researchers surveyed people in camps and cities in Kenya, Ethiopia and Jordan. Overall wellbeing scores for people in camps in Ethiopia were five points lower, on a scale of one to 100, than for people who had fled to the city. In Kenya, wellbeing was 11 points lower for people in camp compared to those who had fled to the suburb of Eastleigh.

In Jordan, there was little difference between the two cohorts when it came to overall wellbeing – those living in Zaatari refugee camp and those who had fled to the capital Amman. However, researchers noted that the amount of money spent per capita by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) was much greater in Jordan than in Ethiopia or Kenya, and that Zaatari was a younger camp than either Dadaab or Aysaita.

Nevertheless, just 16% of people living in Zaatari rated the healthcare as high quality, compared to 46% of women and 34% of men who had made their homes in Amman. Over half of those living in Zaatari camp said they couldn’t move and live elsewhere in Jordan, compared to just 9% in the city.

Across all three countries, the proportion of refugees working and contributing to the local economy was much higher in cities than in camps. For example, the proportion of people in Kenya’s Dadaab camp who had some form of income from work was 25%, compared to 57% in the city. Urban refugees were also more likely to be equipped to start their own businesses, have skills and the legal right to work. 

Earle said: “We know the spiralling impacts of climate change are going to displace more people in future to add to the millions already fleeing conflict and disaster. The international community needs to embrace the benefits of hosting people in cities and help them to build sustainable, happy lives and brighter futures.”

Notes to editors

This research has been carried out for the Protracted Displacement in a Urban World consortium.

For more information or to request an interview, contact Sarah Grainger: +44 7503 643332 or