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

Is moving out of camps to establish a life in the city a realistic option for refugees? Guest blogger Hafsa Ali spoke to refugee women in Kenya’s Dadaab camp and in Nairobi’s bustling Eastleigh neighbourhood to find out more.

Hafsa Mohamud Ali's picture
Insight by 
Hafsa Mohamud Ali
Junior area coordinator at Samuel Hall
20 April 2023
People walking down a market on an unpaved

Several Somalian refugee women run small shops in the market of Dagahley. This is one of the few livelihood opportunities available to them in the camp as few people want to employ refugees (Photo: copyright René Habermacher)

Imagine a woman, a mother to be precise, who fled war and sought solace in a new country. She is welcomed, given a home. She and her family can start life afresh. In this story of devastating loss and deep trauma, that’s a peaceful ending, yes?

But this is not the end for most Somali refugee women who have fled conflict, persecution or natural disaster, and now live in Kenya’s camps or cities.

I myself am a Somali-Kenyan woman and have lived in Kenya all my life. I was aware of the vast number of refugees (over 200,000) living in Dadaab – one of the largest refugee camps in the world. And I knew, too, of refugees trying to establish themselves in Kenya's towns and cities.

But I had little idea of the daily realities of refugees, often living just a few hours from my home.

A project led by IIED in partnership with Samuel Hall seeks to build a deeper understanding of the experiences of refugees living in camps and cities. I set out to meet refugees and learn more about their wellbeing, the challenges they face, their hopes for their future. My research focused on women.

Life in camps

The journey of women fleeing conflict and devastation in their own countries typically begins in camps. Here they can access basic services – shelter, food, water, sanitation.

I travelled to Dadaab to meet women refugees and find out about their lives there.

I was struck by the intense hardships they face. Living conditions are tough, there is overcrowding, disease spreads, healthcare is poor. Camps are insecure; women carry the constant fear of exposure to violence.

Education provided for children is one of the major concerns of the women I spoke with. But the quality of teaching is poor, as one mother told me:

“We want our children to learn something, so they are not left behind. But there are no good teachers – teachers fear coming [to camps] because of their security, they fear they will be persecuted. The children are difficult; they run away from school and do not want to learn.”

But perhaps the biggest and most overwhelming struggle is the feeling of being trapped. To leave the camp even for a single day a refugee must convince a committee of officials they have a viable reason. Papers that grant permission to leave can take months, sometimes up to a year, to process. The women describe the camps as an “open prison”.

Is the city an alternative?

While there are many obstacles to getting out of the camp, some refugees do manage to leave. Some prove they have relatives in towns or cities who can support them financially, some go through the official route and get papers to leave temporarily – and don’t come back, which makes them illegal residents in the city. Others pay bribes to guards.

I asked the women if they thought about trying to leave for the city.

Despite the harsh and stifling conditions, they thought their life in the camp was better. Agencies and organisations provide support, they explained. There is no rent to pay in camps –- housing is provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and it’s free. Food is provided – it may not be good quality, but it’s free. In camps, their children can attend school − the level of education may be poor, but it’s free...

They shared how they had heard stories of women who moved to the city and struggled to live. They know women who left the camp only to return because city life was so hard, so lonely and living costs impossible to afford.

These women dream of freedom, of working to support their families, of an education for their children. But they do not believe they will find this in the city, which is also what they hear from others.

Living on the city margins, struggling to survive

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.

About the author

Hafsa Ali is junior area coordinator at Samuel Hall and a research assistant within the Protracted Displacement in an Urban World project.

Hafsa Mohamud Ali's picture