COVID-19 and Refugees in Nairobi

At the moment, one of the most critical aspects of our work is ensuring that refugees in Nairobi, and beyond, have access to the information and resources that they need to protect themselves from COVID-19. Due to gaps in public health infrastructure, refugees are often forgotten or overlooked. RefugePoint plays a critical role in filling that gap in Nairobi, where the first cases of coronavirus in Kenya have been found.

The evolution of our Urban Refugee Protection Program in Nairobi relates directly to health care and to protecting refugees and the communities in which they live from the coronavirus today. In 2005 we started meeting many refugees who had fled violence in refugee camps and ended up living in the impoverished areas of Nairobi, often in overcrowded, cramped one-room dwellings. Some were HIV positive. None had access to health services.

We launched a medical clinic to help them, but quickly understood that healthcare was only one of the essential needs. Over time, thanks to private funding, we added additional services such as counseling, food, safe shelter, and support to generate an income. We created a unique holistic approach with the ultimate aim of enabling refugees to become self-reliant. Our approach has influenced global thinking to some degree, as we highlight in Fostering Refugee Self-Reliance: A Case Study of an Agency’s Approach in Nairobi.  

Health is key to our approach and underpins our success. The services we provide and the changes we’ve helped to bring about at the government level are among the most exciting and impactful areas of our work, although we rarely draw attention to them.

Here’s a timeline of some key moments in our health services:

2005: RefugePoint started a medical clinic to serve refugees without access to health care in Nairobi. Soon after, we began partnering with other city clinics to expand health access to refugees.

2008: Recognizing a significant public health gap, RefugePoint began partnering with Nairobi’s city government and the Kenyan Ministry of Health to reach refugees in Nairobi with public health information and vaccination campaigns. 

2011: Replicating a community health worker model, RefugePoint hired a cadre of refugee community navigators to communicate health and other critical information to their communities in Nairobi by going door to door in their assigned blocks. 

2014: RefugePoint played a key role in brokering an agreement with Kenya’s National Hospital Insurance Fund, which then allowed refugees to access the same health insurance benefits as Kenyans. Today the majority of Nairobi’s 70,000 plus refugees have insurance and access to clinics and hospitals at significantly reduced fees.

2019: Through outreach and bulk SMS messages, RefugePoint has reached over 52,000 refugees with critical information, including cholera outbreaks, polio vaccination campaigns, TB testing, and other life-saving information. 

Over many years of service and outreach, we have built trust with refugee communities in Nairobi. Now we are leveraging our infrastructure to provide guidance on hygiene, handwashing, and other COVID-19 specific information. We are the primary source of information for many, and in this respect, play an important public health role. We also continue to treat patients directly in our clinic and, during this time of disruption and social-distancing, are committed to providing continuity of care through innovative remote means.

RefugePoint meets and serves people during their most hopeless moments. These include single female-headed households, unaccompanied children, refugees from LGBTIQ communities, and others who can fall through the cracks of humanitarian assistance. For many, right now is one of those times. Viruses don’t distinguish among immigration statuses — citizens, refugees, or other displaced people. We must all stand together at this time and ensure that the most vulnerable among us are included in public health strategies.