Refugee Spaces and Urban Citizenship in Nairobi: Africa’s Sanctuary City

Refugee Spaces and Urban Citizenship in Nairobi: Africa’s Sanctuary City


Reviewed by Corey R Johnson

First Published:

10 May 2022, 2:29 am

Refugee Spaces and Urban Citizenship in Nairobi: Africa’s Sanctuary City

Derese G Kassa, Refugee Spaces and Urban Citizenship in Nairobi: Africa’s Sanctuary City, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019; 114 pp.: ISBN: 9781498570992, £73.00 (hbk)


Recent estimates indicate that as many as 60% of the world’s refugees reside in urban areas, with most of these residing in the urban areas of the Global South (UNHCR, 2020). While urban refugees have been a part of cities for decades, only recently has the issue received more sustained attention as an analytic category (Fábos and Kibreab, 2007). The growing recognition of the reality of urban refugees has led to their integration into urban planning and humanitarian frameworks, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and UN Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda, as well as UNHCR recalibrating its urban refugee policy in 2009 to more comprehensively address the issue. For scholars, understanding how refugees navigate the rapidly transforming and highly informalised urban environments that are the norm in southern cities is a complex task; there remain significant gaps in knowledge as well as epistemological questions about how best to understand the diversity of southern cities, and the role of urban theory developed in the context of industrialised cities of the Global North (Parnell and Oldfield, 2014; Randolph and Storper, 2022).

Derese Kassa’s book, Refugee Spaces and Urban Citizenship in Nairobi: Africa’s Sanctuary City, is a welcome addition to the literature on the question of urban refugees, urban citizenship regimes and the role of urban theory in cities of the Global South. Kassa investigates the experiences of Ethiopian urban refugees in Nairobi, a city he labels as ‘Africa’s sanctuary city’, through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s theoretical work on the ‘right to the city’, urban citizenship and the production of space. In doing so, he explores how Ethiopian refugees negotiate aspects of urban citizenship in Nairobi and if the ‘right to the city’ is useful for understanding the specific urbanism of Nairobi. Through this investigation, Kassa then asks if we can speak of urban citizenship regimes and a rights-based discourse for urban refugees in a meaningful way in cities of the Global South (p. 15).

The book is structured into five chapters and is based on qualitative interviews with Ethiopian refugees and community leaders (30 in total) and key informant interviews with Kenyan officials, civil society leaders and members of international organisations in Nairobi (20 in total). The Ethiopian informants were selected across three districts of Nairobi where large numbers of refugees reside (Kamukanji, Westlands and Eastleigh). Chapter One, ‘Setting the Scene’, offers a useful overview of urban citizenship literature and a brief discussion of specificity of cities in the Global South. Chapter Two discusses the research methods and provides a brief history of Nairobi, delving into its colonial origins and emergence as a relatively stable city within the context of mass displacement in East and Central Africa. Of particular importance here are how these migrations have shaped the Kenyan state’s refugee policy, giving rise to a policy of encampment and one of the largest refugee camp complexes in the world, the Dadaab and Kakuma configurations. This policy position has fostered a reluctance to formally endorse an urban refugee policy even if there is a tacit acceptance of this reality.

Chapters Three and Four contain the empirical findings, with Chapter Three, ‘The Making of Urban Refugees’, exploring the everyday lives and spaces of Ethiopian refugees in Nairobi. The chapter highlights how, despite their liminal status and unstable tenure in the city, Ethiopian refugees have established businesses as well as social and cultural organisations that have slowly become enduring features of Nairobi’s urban fabric. Chapter Four, ‘“Governing” refugees’, sets out the international and national legal and policy frameworks and a useful history of the development of Kenya’s unique and contradictory refugee policy framework. It aims to ‘delineate the scope and essence of political rights’ afforded refugees and in turn how this structures the relations between refugees and the Kenyan state (p. 49). Here, Kassa emphasises how the ‘securitisation’ of refugee policy – often thought of as a trend specific to countries of the Global North – has filtered into Kenyan policy and law with variable impacts on different groups of urban refugees. Despite the Kenyan state’s relatively weak capacity, the punitive organs of the state wield significant power to reinforce the ‘refugee-citizen divide’ (p. 46). Chapter Five summarises the findings and applies a Lefebvrian lens to his informants’ Nairobi. Referencing the diversity of experiences, he highlights the inherent difficulties in applying the categorisations of ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’ in the Nairobi context where the root causes of displacement are hard to distinguish and often multiple, and where imagined futures are often elsewhere. It concludes that Ethiopian refugees undertake a mode of ‘integration from below’ (p. 77) that meets two out of Lefebvre’s three criteria for urban citizenship: inhabitance of the city and production of urban space, but fails with the third criterion as they are unable to effectively participate in the free and democratic governance of the city (p. 84).

Overall, the book provides a readable and interesting account of Ethiopian refugees in Nairobi and their unique migration histories, their social and cultural structures in Nairobi and their strategies and tactics for interacting with an amorphous state. Given the subtitle, some readers (like this reviewer) may expect engagement with the sanctuary city literature emanating from both sides of the Atlantic (see e.g. Bauder, 2017). However, Kassa’s use of the term is instead aimed at highlighting how Nairobi has emerged as a de facto sanctuary within an unsettled region despite an overwhelmingly negative national policy framework and, at best, ambivalent municipal policies. It is within the cracks of the formal policy framework, between a hardened security and control orientation and its weak implementation by a fractured state in practice, that urban refugees are able to create urban space that functions as a sanctuary. The book does a splendid job of describing how Ethiopian refugees have navigated this uncertain and often hostile legal terrain to establish a lasting urban edifice in Nairobi amidst uncertain and staggered temporalities. Their success in doing so has led some of Kassa’s key Kenyan informants to label areas such as Eastleigh as ‘their neighbourhood’, albeit often along with the vocabulary of securitisation, using descriptors such as ‘bomb attacks’, ‘illegal human trafficking’ and ‘security threats’ (p. 79). Although only hinted at in the book, Kassa’s findings provide for an interesting base from which to compare the experiences of other refugee populations to understand how concepts such as ‘differential inclusion’ might apply in the East African context, as well as the different degrees of precarity, stratification, opportunity and vulnerability that the Kenyan refugee framework produces (Casas-Cortes et al., 2015).

Perhaps a limitation of the book is the brief discussion on how refugees were selected as informants. Many of those interviewed and quoted at length are professionals and business owners who appear to possess considerable resources and have resided in Nairobi for decades (pp. 36–37, 39, 58–59). While the study is qualitative, more information on this aspect would allow the reader to better contextualise the findings. Kassa’s formulation of the term refugee to cover a broad array of reasons for coming to Nairobi is welcomed and fits with work done in other contexts where ‘survival’ migration has multiple causes and motivations and can be difficult to place within formal definitions and normative frameworks (Betts, 2013). However, it is curious then as to why he utilises an inclusive definition when discussing urban refugees in Nairobi, but those who continue their journeys to South Africa are engaged in ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘human trafficking’ (pp. 1, 77), which undermines his argument.

Overall, Kassa’s study provides a significant contribution to the literature on urban refugees and urban citizenship in southern cities. It provides a useful application of Lefebvre’s theoretical work to the context of the southern city and contributes a wealth of empirical data on Ethiopian urban refugees in Nairobi. One of the goals of the book was to ‘kindle interest among students of urban Africa to conduct more research in the experiences of refugees and how they impact cities like Nairobi’ (p. 21), and in this regard the book is certain to open up further avenues of research for students and scholars of urban refugees and African cities.


Bauder, H (2017) Sanctuary cities: Policies and practices in international perspective. International Migration 55(2): 174–187.

Betts, A (2013) State fragility, refugee status and ‘survival migration’. Forced Migration Review 43. Available at: (accessed 18 February 2022).

Casas-Cortes, M, Cobarrubias, S, De Genova, N, et al. (2015) New keywords: Migration and borders. Cultural Studies 29(1): 55–87.

Fábos, A, Kibreab, G (2007) Urban refugees: Introduction. Refuge 24(1): 1–19.

Parnell, S, Oldfield, S (eds) (2014) The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South. London: Routledge.

Randolph, G, Storper, M (2022) Is urbanisation in the Global South fundamentally different? Comparative global urban analysis for the 21st century. Urban Studies. Epub ahead of print 8 February 2022. DOI: 10.1177/00420980211067926.

UNHCR (2020) World Cities Day: Cities lead the way in protecting forcibly displaced against impact of COVID-19. Available at: (accessed 18 February 2022).


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