For about eight years a team of researchers in the Refugee Economies Programme at the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre has been carrying out studies in East Africa. We work closely with refugees as our research assistants.
Since the global pandemic began, we have been speaking with these research assistants to understand better the impact that COVID-19 is having on refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The assistants – primarily from Congolese and Somali refugee communities – are people who are well-networked with fellow refugees. They include community leaders, staff members of aid organisations, pastors and representatives of community-based organisations.
All of the assistants reported primarily on the acute economic challenges that the crisis has caused for Nairobi’s refugees.
Nairobi hosts about 81,000 refugees. Despite Kenya’s encampment policy which prohibits refugees from leaving camps, Nairobi has been a home for refugees for many years. By moving to the city, refugees largely give up their access to humanitarian assistance. However, they choose to live in Nairobi to gain better access to economic opportunities and social services, such as education and health.
In order to work in the formal sector, refugees must obtain a work permit. But these are rarely issued. This means refugees are largely excluded from formal labour markets and are heavily reliant on informal urban economies.
To curb the spread of COVID-19, Kenya has implemented a dusk to dawn curfew and lockdowns which restrict people’s movements in and out of certain counties, and parts of Nairobi. These severely constrain mobility. As a result many urban refugees are unable to pursue their livelihoods in the same ways as before.
They have few savings and depend on the day-to-day cash they generate from street vending. They now face a struggle to buy food every day. And they have the added challenge of being excluded from other channels of support.
Hawking, though prohibited by the Nairobi City Council, is the most common way they earn a living. A considerable number of Congolese refugees sell bitenge (African textiles) or mobile phone credit on the busy streets of Nairobi. They often venture out of the capital to other cities to explore less competitive markets.
Somali refugees typically sell clothing, tea and snacks in Eastleigh – Nairobi’s so-called “little Mogadishu” – because of the large number of Somalis who live and do business here.
Alongside informal businesses, mutual assistance between refugees is crucial for survival. When they run out of cash or food, they visit friends, neighbours, churches or mosques to get help. Some fortunate refugees also benefit from remittances sent by friends or relatives living abroad. As these examples show, for self-settled refugees in Nairobi, both mobility and various networks are key for their day-to-day survival.
Over the last several weeks, I have been communicating with our research assistants through phone, Skype, emails or WhatsApp to gather information.
From these reports we have learnt that hawkers in particular are suffering from movement restrictions and far fewer customers. Many hawkers used to take advantage of the evening hours – between 5pm and 8pm – when city council patrols would disappear. But the curfew starts at 7pm and most people on the streets now vanish at around 5pm to 6pm.
In addition, remittance pipelines appear to be dwindling. According to our research in 2017, 43% of Somali refugees received remittances. The annual median amount of remittances sent was Ksh252,000 (about US$2,500). But one Somali research assistant reported that Hawala – a money transfer system – has become “empty”. Although some remittance recipients are still getting regular support from abroad, many others have lost financial support as the pandemic-induced economic crisis also hits their remitters abroad.
Finally, our research assistants note that collective economic activities have also been disturbed by the COVID-19 lockdown. For instance, Somali refugee business people often organise ayuto – credit groups that would regularly put money together for mutual financial assistance. Now, due to business closures and restricted movements, many of these communal finance mechanisms aren’t working.
Our refugee research assistants also reported that although the Kenyan government has started to assist some vulnerable Kenyan families with food and a small cash stipend via Mpesa – the mobile money network in Kenya – refugees are excluded from government support by their legal status. One assistant reported that a group of refugees who enquired were explicitly told by government officials: “UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is responsible for refugees, so go to UNHCR.”
To cope, refugees rely on solidarity. Among Somali refugees, those who are less affected are trying to help vulnerable community members. In the Congolese community, pastors collect food and cash donations and redistribute them to the most vulnerable refugees with the help of community-based organisations. Pastors are also providing counselling.
But all the research assistants we spoke to are concerned about how long they can sustain these informal support mechanisms. Ad hoc refugee-led initiatives are almost entirely reliant on benevolent donations from refugees themselves.
After the health risks of COVID-19 are finally mitigated, the question of how to best assist refugees’ economic recovery should be a primary concern for refugee-assisting agencies. Needs-based aid, such as giving food and non-food items, is definitely necessary and important. But reconstruction of livelihood strategies after COVID-19 needs a long-term vision and different approaches
Associate professor, University of Oxford