A Somali refugee woman rolls a water container as she pushes them back to her makeshift shelter in the Dadaab refugee camp on March 23, 2023. 

| Bobb Muriithi | AFP

From the frying pan into the fire? The tough lives of refugees living in Kenya

Ten years ago, Mr Razene Zarai, an Eritrean, sought refuge in Kenya after escaping political clashes in his country.

Since then, Zarai says he has never set foot outside Mombasa County.

Life has been difficult for him, because while he is officially registered as a refugee in Kenya, he is unable to obtain a driver's licence or do bank transactions.

"It is not that I do not want to travel. It is because of the restrictions that my family and I face for being a refugee," explains Zarai.

He added, "Our refugee identity card is meant to be renewed every five years, yet it seems to have no use at all. Despite my being in Kenya for over a decade, we are unable to receive any government services. I can't work or handle money.”

For the refugee family, it is a constant struggle to get through each day in Kenya.

Another refugee, Ms Firdaus Ahmed, is also in the same situation.

She envies her age-mates who are employed while she cannot get any formal job to meet her needs. Ms Ahmed’s family fled Somalia in 1994 when she was three months old.

"My childhood and school friends are employed. Being in this situation is terrible and depressing," she said.

The refugees were speaking at the Travellers Beach Hotel in Mombasa as part of an engagement by the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) bringing together refugees, host communities and Civil Society Organisations.

Their case is similar to that of Eugene Lubangi, who escaped from the Democratic Republic of Congo back in 1999.

Lubangi said he got lucky and married a Kenyan, and together they were blessed with children.

"Despite being in Kenya for more than 20 years, I find it hard to apply for work permits or get a driving license," says Lubangi.

The urban refugees describe their life as more difficult since circumstances force them to look for jobs to feed their families.

Lubangi adds: "It is not like we live in camps with everything supplied for us. When I fled the violence in my country, Mombasa was not my first choice. But I ended up here. Due to paperwork constraints, I have been unable to move anywhere else.”

Another refugee said, "When I came into this country (Kenya) from my Somalia, I was about two years. I had no idea why we were moving; if you could ask me at that time, I would have no knowledge or reasons to explain it. I followed due diligence and got my refugee ID, but other than carrying it around, it has no value. I cannot access government services, nor can I apply for a job. I am left stranded," says Salah Mohamed.

The refugees said that among them, they have professors, doctors, and engineers who are now compelled to stay at home because they are unable to work or operate any kind of business in the city. The other problem they are dealing with is police harassment.

Refugee communities living in urban areas of Kenya complain of stringent work restrictions preventing them from securing employment opportunities, leading to severe hardships in meeting their daily needs.

They say despite their prolonged stay in the country, their existence has been difficult and that impedes their ability to thrive and integrate fully into the Kenyan society.

Those who spoke to Nation.Africa are among 580,792 registered refugees and asylum seekers being hosted in Kenya as of February 2023, according to statistics from the Department of Refugee Services.

The report states that 12 percent of them are seeking asylum, while 88 percent are officially registered as refugees.

Eighty-four percent of refugees and asylum seekers reside in camps, with the remaining 16 percent living in cities.

A legal officer of the non-governmental Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK), which advocates for both refugees and host communities, thinks greater lobbying and education among different government officers is necessary.

The lobby’s legal officer Cindy Adundo said refugees residing in Kenya are still subjected to discrimination and have long been misinterpreted as illegal immigrants.

“No one chooses to flee from their country and seek asylum in a foreign land, and as such, they should be treated with dignity and respect,” says Adundo.

Department of Refugee Services statistics indicate that as of February 2023, 289,701 refugees and asylum seekers came from Somalia, followed by South Sudan (155,852), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (54,860), and Ethiopia (32,221).

Along with Burundi 26,667, Sudan 10,517, Uganda 3,835, Eritrea 2,682, Rwanda 2,482, and other nations totalling 1,085.