Refugee camps failing as a safety net against hunger, homelessness and ill-health

Research from multiple countries busts myths around humanitarian response to refugees. Resources could be better deployed supporting refugees to live in cities.

Press release, 22 September 2023

Researchers have found concerning levels of hunger, limited access to healthcare and instances of homelessness among refugees living in camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Jordan, according to a paper published today by IIED – despite the fact that camps are prioritised for funding by the UN and other agencies and are billed as a safety net for the most vulnerable people.

When surveyed, 53% of refugees in Aysaita camp, Ethiopia, and 60% of refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp reported not having enough to eat in the week before compared to 20% of refugees living in Addis Ababa and 34% who had moved to Nairobi.

At the same time, a majority – 62% in Dadaab, 76.5% in Aysaita – of surveyed camp residents in both countries stated that they would like to work, but income earning opportunities were limited.

Across all people surveyed in Ethiopia, Kenya and Jordan, 83% living in cities said they had adequate access to healthcare compared to just 69% living in camps.

The quality of shelter in the camps was also a concern for many. Researchers also found homelessness in the camps. Among the survey respondents there were camp-based residents in both Kenya and Ethiopia who stated that they had no shelter at all to live in, most likely because registration can take many months.

    In the paper 'Why the international community is failing refugees', researchers also dispel other myths about the way the international humanitarian system responds to people who have had to flee their homes. Contrary to stereotypes about refugees, the surveys found:

    • Those who move to live in towns and cities are not just young, single men
    • Although urban refugees choose not to stay in camps and receive aid, this does not mean that they don’t face deprivation, and
    • The design and location of large camps means they are intrinsically not suitable to develop as cities in their own right.

    Farhiyo (not her real name), a 39-year-old mother of seven who lives in a suburb of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, fled Somalia 14 years ago. She told researchers: “Camp life is terrible. People live in tents, and iron sheet structures. You wait for the UN to feed you, even if you are talented and you start a business it will not thrive since very few businesses thrive in camps. I have never thought of moving to the camps because it's difficult to start a business in a camp, the support in the camps is limited. So, I decided to stay in the city.”

    Forty-two-year-old Hakima Adan Gedi, who has lived in Dadaab camp for the last 12 years with her husband and children, said: “The help we get from the [non-governmental organisations] is free education and basic healthcare too is free, but even if you need advanced healthcare services like surgery, they don’t provide them. I wanted to move to Nairobi… I wanted to move to a place where I could work, a place cooler than Dadaab but I did not get that opportunity.”

    Lucy Earle, acting director of research on human settlements at IIED, said: “The overwhelming majority of people we spoke to told us that the opportunities for a dignified and prosperous life were better in cities than in refugee camps. People in camps often go hungry – this gives the lie to the argument that camps are safety nets for vulnerable refugees. 

    “People who have fled their homes to live in cities still face hardships but our research suggests that if the resources expended on constructing camps were instead used to improve infrastructure and support in cities, this could provide enormous benefits for both refugees and the communities receiving them.”

    The prioritising of camps for funding and programming occurs despite the fact that globally, at least 60% of refugees are thought to be living in towns and cities, with only around 20% in camps, according to figures from UNHCR.

    With a few notable exceptions, refugees who have sought sanctuary in the towns and cities of low- and middle-income countries do not receive humanitarian assistance. This has given rise to the myth that urban refugees must therefore be self-reliant. This attitude creates a wilful blindness to serious deprivations experienced by some urban refugees.

    Notes to editors

    Photographs and transcripts of detailed interviews with some of the respondents to the survey are available on request.

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