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This working paper is based on preliminary fieldwork in Kenya conducted as part of ‘Refugee Economies’ research led by the Humanitarian Innovation Project based at the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC). The research strand of refugee economies at the RSC is driven by an imminent need to better understand and support the economic lives of refugees. Given today’s daunting challenges, with more people displaced than at any time since the Second World War, it is imperative to rethink refugee assistance and to seek ways to promote refugees’ economic potential. Pioneering work has already taken place, drawing attention to and describing key aspects of the economies that exist in refugee camps and urban areas. However, more theoretical approaches are required. Against this backdrop, the concept of refugee economies has been developed to nurture a better understanding of refugees’ economic lives and to explain variation in economic outcomes for refugees (Betts et al., forthcoming 2016). Between 2013 and 2014, the Humanitarian Innovation Project completed a pilot case study across four research sites in Uganda. Although Uganda’s treatment of refugees is not perfect, it does offer refugees a relatively high level of socio-economic freedom through its Self-Reliance Strategy. For comparative purposes, we have selected Kenya as our second case study country, since it neighbours Uganda but has more stringent refugee policies that restrict socio-economic freedom. Through a comparative analysis of Uganda and Kenya, our ultimate aim is to deepen our understanding of the economic lives of refugees vis-à-vis different regulatory environments and to accumulate more data on variation in economic consequences for refugees. We conducted initial research in Kakuma refugee camp and Nairobi in March and April 2016. This initial fieldwork focused on the most prevalent nationalities of refugees in each site, namely Somali and Congolese refugees in Nairobi, and South Sudanese, Somali and Congolese refugees in Kakuma camp. Given the limited duration of the fieldwork, its focus was on gathering qualitative data primarily from Somali, Congolese and South Sudanese refugees, exploring the following two research questions: 1. What types of livelihoods strategies are employed by refugees living in Nairobi and Kakuma refugee camp? 2. What are the potential factors that differentiate refugees’ economic lives from local host communities and amongst different refugee populations?



Working paper


Refugee Studies Centre

Publication Date



RSC Working Paper Series, 120

Total pages



refugee economies, livelihoods, refugee policy