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Overcoming Adversity: Alternative Livelihood Dynamics Affecting Sudanese Refugees Residing in Kenya

Updated on October 14, 2013

There is a broad misconception of refugees as traumatized, unproductive individuals who are simply living off external aid handouts. While most refugees experience a tremendous amount of personal hardship, including food insecurity and health risks, a closer analysis of the current literature on refugee studies shows a growing number of refugees engage in a variety of livelihood strategies which have been adapted to life in a refugee camp.

These processes are apparent in the refugee camps located near the porous Kenya-Sudan border, which hosts some of the most complex refugee movements in the world. These movements are the result of several internal conflicts within the Sudanese state, which include widespread environmental depletion, famine, and a protracted civil war, which have had severe consequences for Sudan’s political and economic stability.

According to the UNHCR, there are over 27,500 Sudanese refugees residing in Kenya, representing a small percentage of the total number of Sudanese refugees, which is around 500,000.[1] Of these, over half reside in neighboring Chad, and the rest can be found primarily in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Several smaller refugee populations can be found in France, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.[2] While most refugees come to the camp with a degree of trauma and destitution, many of them manage to increase their livelihoods over time. Livelihood is defined as the capabilities, assets, and activities required for a means of living.[3] The internal socio-economic characteristics of these camps are comparable to similar processes found in urban centers, where refugees carve out a sustainable livelihood for themselves through a variety of means.

The internal dynamics of a refugee camp: Kakuma

Since 1992, the town of Kakuma, located in the semi-arid Turkana District in northwestern Kenya, has been the site of the Kakuma refugee camp. As of August 2012, there are over 100,000 refugees at the camp, exceeding its occupational capacity.[4] More refugees, especially from the newly created country of South Sudan’s Jonglei State and Sudan's South Kordofan, continue to arrive at Kakuma. These new waves of refugees are fleeing the ethnic conflicts of the region, especially the clashes between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes, who are in a protracted battle over cattle theft.[5] In addition, refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have arrived in Kakuma this year.

The Kakuma camp has more in common with a city than a transient location for refugee shelter. The size, population density, commerce opportunities, and occupational backgrounds of the camp have created an urban-like atmosphere that has allowed refugees to create a new life for themselves. A unique social structure featuring a myriad number of occupations has arisen in the camp, with the possibility of self-sustainment as humanitarian aid continues to decrease.[6] This structure includes hospitals, schools, centers of worship, and evidence of urban planning such as the creation of city-like blocks and avenues.[7]

Regardless of official government rhetoric regarding refugee camps as “closed centers”, no camp is completely closed off to traffic from capital, people, and goods.[8] This can be seen in the porous nature of economic activity between the Kakuma camp and the local population. Although the camp is located in a sparsely populated, economically underdeveloped part of Kenya, it is one of the region’s most important commerce centers. In fact, refugee traders provide an important link between refugee camp economies and wider national and international markets.[9]

Market transactions as a sustainable livelihood

One of the main characteristics of the informal camp economy found within the Kakuma camp are its markets, which provides many chances for refugees to engage in a sustainable livelihood. While official Kenyan policy prevents refugees from finding employment in nearby towns, in some instances journeying outside the camp is permitted. In fact, the Kakuma camp is linked to Nairobi through a weekly bus service that runs once a week, providing refugees with trading opportunities and exchanges with Nairobian traders and merchants.[10] These camp markets contain a variety of agricultural goods, imported wares such as crockery or other goods, and processed foods made onsite such as fried breads and alcoholic beverages.[11] Shops selling other assorted items, such as sodas, beer, and cigarettes can also be found.

In addition, these markets have received attention from outsiders; during harvest time traders come from major Kenyan cities such as Nairobi to purchase the refugees’ agricultural goods. According to de Monclas and Kagwanja (2000), the local populations located near the Kakuma and Dadaab camps were overlooked regions in terms of the Kenyan government’s priorities.[12] Nowadays the government is much keener to keep an eye on the economic and social developments which have taken place in the region since the establishment of the refugee camps there in the early 1990’s. Pastoralist communities from neighboring locations such as Yumbis, Alnijukur, Anole and Kulan can be observed in the vicinity of the camp, primarily to take advantage of the UNHCR-built water sources and to purchase food at low prices.[13] They also sold cattle and milk to the refugees.

Local population dynamics

Predominant views of refugee camps characterize them as disorderly places that strain the resources of local communities and lead to environmental degradation.[14] However, the economy of a refugee camp can provide economic benefit for neighboring towns. Large amounts of economic activity take place between the Kakuma refugees and the local Turkana population, countering the notion that camps constitute an exclusively negative consequence for Kenyan society. These economic benefits are often undervalued; as most observers to the camp tend to focus on the living conditions of the camp’s inhabitants rather than the mutual trade benefits taking place between these refugees and the local population. Refugee camps are meant to be temporary settlements for people fleeing violence, political persecution and other destabilizing factors. Many refugee camps (Kakuma included) last longer than basic transient settlement sites, the average number of years a refugee stays at Kakuma is 14 years.[15]

The local Turkana population also sells goats, chickens, camels and vegetables to the refugees. At the same time, refugees sell to the locals small amounts of produce such as maize (for sorghum) and their UNHCR food aid. But these transactions are not only local in scope. Camp shops located within Kakuma also import a variety of goods from other places in Kenya; including Nairobi, the neighboring Dadaab refugee camp, and in some instances even overseas. “We are nothing without these refugees, if they go, we’ll have to fly the Palestinians in”, said a local Turkana man who lives in Kakuma town next to the camp.[16] In fact, the economic importance of the refugee camp to the neighboring towns is so significant that many pastoralists have abandoned their traditional livestock-rearing activities and settled around the camp, hoping to cash in on the incentives provided by the camp’s economy. According to the UNHCR, the economy of the Kakuma area “would have collapsed years ago had it not been for the daily commercial, relief and service activity implemented by UNHCR and partners in humanitarian aid to refugees in the camp.[17] This pastoral population swelled to about 65,000 in 2006, according to estimates given by the local chief.[18]

In the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Somalian border, a similar synergy exists between the camp and neighboring towns. In a ten year period, starting with the camp’s founding in 1992, the town of Dadaab has experienced a five-fold increase in population, from 3,000 to 15,000 by late 2004. As a result of the camp, roads have improved, the variety of goods at the local market has risen, and there have been increased employment opportunities available as a result of the camp’s partnering activities with NGO’s and other organizations.[19] In the ultimate act that shows the town’s development since the camp’s establishment, Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider, SafariCom, extended cell phone coverage to the region in February 2004. Previously, there was no cellphone coverage in Dadaab or its environs; all this changed as a result of the camp’s presence.[20] Such an investment by a major Kenyan company in this desolate region would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago.


Apart from the markets, many refugees offer a variety of services inside the camps. This includes selling cooked food or working in makeshift restaurant or coffee shops. In larger camps, such as Kakuma and Dadaab, providing relief workers and visitors with lunches is a substantial source of income for many refugees.[21] In addition, men and women provide tailoring services, as well as mechanics, carpentry, and beauty services such as hairdressing. More innovative services have the potential to materialize when there is a lack of services provided by the relief organization. For example, telephone services are one of the most highly-sought after services within camps, since they want to maintain contact with their social networks in their home country. This has resulted in a highly lucrative business for refugees with cellphones. In the Kakuma camp, there are two internet cafes located there, while in the surrounding towns there are no such places.[22] In places lacking telephone and web services, enterprising refugees with cellphones set up calling booths and charge customers by the minute for made or received calls.

Education and skills training

Several non-profit organizations also conduct training seminars to give refugees new skills in order to pursue specific livelihood strategies. This can include the fields of healthcare, education, mechanics training, or several other areas. These programs are aimed at increasing the skillset of refugees in order to increase economic and social well-being. In the Dadaab camp, vocational and skills training is conducted by several groups, including the CARE organization, a health services company called GTZ, and other private companies operating in the region.[23]

Skills providers – CARE and GTZ Health Services

The main provider of skills development in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps is CARE. CARE provides training in mechanics, tailoring, carpentry, and leatherworks. Kenyan graduates of the different programs find employment or set up successful microbusinesses. CARE is also paying for some members of the local community to attend the Garissa Technical Institute, where they are trained in garment-making and administration.[24] CARE has also overseen and implemented programs to benefit the local population as well. In the mid-1990’s, CARE workers noticed the gap in livelihoods between the local townspeople and the refugees. As a result, CARE announced that their Dadaab programs will actively include the local populace in a new, overall strategy to increase livelihoods in the region. This strategy also sought to reduce conflicts between the locals and the refugees.[25] From 1994 to 2004, CARE Projects totaling over $13 million benefited the local population. This includes investments in education, healthcare, and water purification projects.

Another important provider of skills training is GTZ, which focuses on critical health sector skills needed in the camp. GTZ manages the four hospitals located there. Around 150 locals have been employed in camp-based health services over the years.[26] GTZ has provided a significant number of refugees as well as people from the local community with on-the job training. However, the training does not provide official certification to work in the healthcare industry in an official capacity beyond the camp.


Receiving remittances makes a significant impact both in households located within the camp and in countries of origin. Remittances sent by Kakuma refugees can help a family through times of conflict and displacement and also aid in the sustainability of communities, since some of the proceeds are given to hometown associations and religious groups.[27] Camp refugees, therefore, sometimes have double financial duties, to themselves and to the family back in Sudan or South Sudan. These remittances are usually made in the form of cash transfers. Sometimes, contributions are made by paying for education or sponsorship of family members abroad. This could be payment for travel tickets, accommodation, document acquisition, or other costs during and after travel.[28] Sending remittances can be a serious setback for refugees, since it means they cannot devote as much time to gaining education, work experience or language skills offered at the camp in order to increase their well-being.

In addition, sending remittances back to Sudan or South Sudan can decrease the chance of debt repayment for the few refugees that benefit from receiving microloans. This creates a poverty cycle that worsens their situation even more. Indeed, according to the United Nations, the importance of remittances should not be underestimated.[29] Even though sending remittances back to Sudan is a financial burden for many refugees, they are pressured into sending them back due to the often precarious situations of their families, which have been ravaged by hunger, disease, and conflict. Other factors which induce refugees to send money back home include family pride, fear of ostracization, or fear of bringing shame on the family.[30]

Microfinance and refugee camps

Apart from wage labor, remittances, and other forms of sustenance, another option available to refugees comes in the form of micro-finance. Micro-finance is a line of credit or a loan to help start a small business, although implementing this type of program in a refugee camp is much more difficult due to the refugee camp setting. One of the most serious obstacles to refugees is access to legitimate sources of credit.

In recent times, international organizations such as the UNHCR have attempted to introduce creative ways to promote self-sufficiency and productivity in refugee camps.[31] During the 1990’s, micro-finance played an increasing role in improving refugees’ economic situation. Micro-finance programs are meant to revive the local economy, offer a boost to household economy, and provide sustainable livelihoods in order to create the means for further development. These income-generating programs use two approaches: grants-based programs consisting of cash, equipment, or raw materials provided for free, or the micro-finance approach.

An example of the impact of a refugee micro-finance program can be found in the Kakuma camp. Five refugee formed a soap manufacturing business. They soon found out the viability of their enterprise had a limited market in the camp, since there was already soap distribution being carried out by the UNHCR camp-wide every month. In order to sustain their business, they approached a refugee support NGO, the International Rescue Committee.[32] Using a microloan from the Committee, the refugees’ increased output and improved the quality of soap, which soon met the requirements of the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

Apart from the microfinance option (in the form of small loans, usually less than $100), there are other services available such as remittance facilities and savings options.[33] NGO’s can provide limited numbers of refugees with savings opportunities, allowing them to keep their funds in separate accounts or to even move money between refugee camps, where other relatives might be housed. These NGO’s also provide access to formal money transfer institutions such as Western Union. The most common facet of microfinance services, however, is the micro-loan option. Small loans are given to groups or individuals, with repayment occurring in installments. Service charges or interest can be added. While implementing these programs usually meets with success, certain circumstances can lead to canceling microfinance programs.[34]

The goal of these enterprises is to support refugee livelihood strategies in a way that respects their dignity as a legitimate economic actor, not as recipients of charitable donations.[35] But this approach, when applied to a refugee context, can meet resistance for several reasons. First, many refugees are reluctant to engage in entrepreneurial pursuits in the host country due to their belief they will return soon to their home country.[36] In reality, refugees could remain in camps for years. Other reasons include the issue of sustainability; since organizations are often unwilling to demand full repayment when considering the refugees’ circumstances. In addition, several organizations offering microfinance options lack the technical expertise to properly advise and caution refugees as to the use of these funds. These organizations oftentimes do not target the most vulnerable in project implementation. Instead, the refugees already equipped with some knowledge and business acumen benefit, but not those who are desperately poor.[37]


While refugee populations do experience a degree of trauma and distress, this does not render them incapable of pursuing a sustainable livelihood once settled in the camp. Oftentimes, refugees stay at these camps for several years, even though camps are created as transient settlement spaces. These camps have been described as urban-like environments that include hospitals, schools, and markets. These refugees, contrary to popular belief, do not simply take humanitarian handouts, impacting the host country in a solely negative way.

Instead, refugee camps act as important centers of economic activity that can have beneficial effects on the nearby local communities. This dynamic can be seen in the refugee camps located near the Kenya-Sudan border, where the livelihood strategies of thousands of refugees have led to an increase in the social and economic well-being for the northwestern part of Kenya as a whole. The scope of these economic activities, including the provision of services such as medical care and trading opportunities, has challenged the predominant view of refugees as unimportant actors in the local spaces they inhabit.


[1] UNHCR “2012 Country Operations Profile - Sudan.”

[2] International Organization of Migration “Migration in Sudan Profile”, 2011, 53-54.

[3] UNHCR-ILO “Self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods for refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma camps”, Strengthening Protection Capacity Project, 2005:5.

[4] Emanuel Nyabera, “Kakuma Camp in Kenya Surpasses its 100,000 capacity”, UNHCR News, August 6, 2012.

[5]“UN: Hundreds dead in South Sudan tribal clash”, Aljazeera, January 4, 2012 (accessed November 15,2012)

[6] Marc-Antoine de Monclas and Peter Kagwanja, “Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socioeconomic Dynamics of the Kakuma and Dadaab Camps in Northern Kenya, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 13, No. 2 (2000):205.

[7] de Monclas and Kagwanja, 209.

[8] Eric Werker, “Refugee Camp Economies”, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 20, No. 3 (2007):462.

[9] de Monclas and Kagwanja, 206.

[10]Karen Jacobsen, The Economic Life of Refugees, (Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2005), 24.

[11] UNHCR-ILO,18.

[12] de Monclas and Kagwanja, 209.

[13] Ibíd.

[14] Bram Jansen, “The Accidental City: Urbanisation in an East Africa Refugee Camp,” Urban Agriculture, 21 (2009):12.

[15] de Monclas and Kagwanja, 206.

[16] Jansen, 12.

[17] UNHCR-ILO,5.

[18] Jansen, 12.

[19] James Milner, Refugees, the State and the Politics of Asylum in Africa, (Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan:2009),94.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jacobsen, 28.

[22]Jansen, 12.

[23] Milner, 94.

[24] UNHCR-ILO, 38.

[25] Milner, 95.

[26] UNHCR-ILO,39.

[27] Jacobsen,59.

[28] Ibid.

[29] UNHCR, Displacement Dynamics (2006:24).

[30] Jacobsen, 61.

[31] Simona Cavaglieri, “Livelihoods and Micro-finance in Refugee Camps.” (Master’s thesis, University of Roma,n.d.)

[32] Ibid.

[33] Jacobsen, 77.

[34] Simona Cavaglieri, “Livelihoods and Micro-finance in Refugee Camps.” (Master’s thesis, University of Roma,n.d.)

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.


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