Global Development Institute Blog

 Tanja Müller, Professor of Political Sociology, Global Development Institute

Reflections from the second emerging findings workshop of the ESRC-funded project: Transnational lived citizenship: practices of citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa, held in Nairobi, 22-23 February 2023.

The Transnational Lived Citizenship project examines how migrant populations establish different forms of political belonging. The empirical data highlights the complex dynamics of lived citizenship and belonging and how it interacts with changing political environments, locally, regionally and globally. The second emerging findings workshop in Nairobi included the project team, Prof Tanja Müller and Dr Oliver Bakewell from the University of Manchester, and local project lead Dr Linda Oucho and her team from the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMAPDOC), along with key stakeholders: representatives from community organisations and other NGOs, practitioners, and policymakers.

On a Saturday morning after the workshop, in the premises of a community organisation in a part of Nairobi where many migrants live, a group of around twenty Ethiopians gathered to discuss their struggles with Linda, Tanja and Oliver. Some young men wear football kits because afterwards, they train with the area’s youth football team; they started “to give the youth something to do and some hope”. Others wear fancy suits and shirts; they are off to their business ventures afterwards. A few women have brought their young children. The majority has lived in Nairobi since the late 1990s or early 2020s. Some were born here or came as very young children.

What unites many of them is the lack of papers or documentation. They all came as refugees and feel unable to return to their country of origin for many different reasons. Some used to be registered with UNHCR, but as refugee IDs typically need to be renewed every two years, they do not currently have valid papers. Others were never registered and are still waiting for the SMS that calls them to make an appointment. Since Kenyan authorities took over registration from UNHCR in 2015, the system has become “even more political”, in the words of one participant. Corruption in who gets papers at what price is a crucial grievance voiced by many.

In theory, things should be a lot easier since the new Refugee Act of 2021, which came into force in 2022. The act gives refugees multiple rights and protection from discrimination, at least on paper. It also gives them the right to work and access to multiple services, including health and education, on the same grounds as Kenyans – on the face of it, a progressive piece of legislation. The problem, however, is that the act doesn’t filter down to reality on the ground. And even for those with refugee IDs, as pointed out by a member of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission at the workshop, this piece of paper is often “powerless”. For example, even for refugees with relevant qualifications, it is, in practice, often impossible to enter the labour market. Even with legal protection in place, many remain in a state of liminal legality. What the refugee ID gives people, however, is hope, hope that one-day things will work out, and for many, the refugee ID is seen as the first step to potential resettlement. In reality, only a tiny percentage are being resettled – but hope is a powerful emotion.

In their everyday lives, refugees and migrants, like those we meet that Saturday, are determined by the networks with people from their place of origin, and their ethnicity, often combined with their faith. While they may get remittances from relatives abroad to manage everyday material struggles, their primary focus of lived citizenship is in their communities in the city. Networks are being formed, and the main limitation of those networks is the lack of finance or support, be it by the host nation or by ‘those organisations that should be responsible for us like UNHCR’, as several participants say.

Take the example of schooling: Youth can attend basic schooling where they live and join the Kenyan school system. But the Kenyan system is competitive and expensive, meaning most have no opportunity to participate in secondary school. Many fall into depression and are forced to live a life of few options; they have their ambitions cut short and are not given a chance. The football team and other community-led activities try to combat this but are no replacement for the aspiration of a meaningful professional life. Of course, one can say this is also the case for many Kenyans of poor backgrounds, so an issue that not only affects refugee or migrant youth. But if “an organisation like UNHCR would have one health facility and one school in this area where many refugees live, that would be a great symbol”. But urban refugees are meant to fend for themselves; such facilities are only available in the camps that nobody here wants to live in or return to.

The discussion with this group of Ethiopian migrants enforces some of the key themes and findings of the workshop: identities and belonging are always related to power dynamics at different levels: the state, the city, the international community and its actors. In this, migrant communities in different ways claim their spaces, sometimes at ethnic communities, but they also ‘negotiate to belong’, as a participant of the workshop called this, in other multiple ways that are determined by the shifting legal, social economic and cultural constraints they encounter. But ultimately, proper documentation opens doors, and formal citizenship or a status that gives equal rights on the ground and in reality, not merely on paper, will become more and more important in an increasing context of long-term displacement.


The research on which this blog is based is part of the project: Transnational Lived Citizenship: Practices of Citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa (2020-2023), funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant number: ES/S016589/1.

The project is led by Prof Tanja Müller (PI) with Oliver Bakewell (Co-I). The partner in Nairobi is Dr Linda Oucho from the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMAPDOC).

The first publication on the Nairobi work of the project has been published in Open Access in Global Networks (2022): Transnational lived citizenship turns local: Covid-19 and Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora in Nairobi.




Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.