Addressing the Challenge of Refugee Integration in Kenya: Lessons from History
By Gordon Ogutu - PhD Student at Dublin City University
This article is about how Kenya can address the challenge of protracted refugee presence in a region that generates and hosts most of the refugees in Africa. It draws on Kenya’s long history as a country of sanctuary and suggests ways through which the refugee problem can be addressed beyond the current encampment policy.
In May 2022, the global population of displaced persons crossed the unprecedented 100 million mark, spurred mainly in 2022 by the Russia-Ukraine war, which has so far displaced more than 10 million people. Coupled with the other enduring conflict situations around the world like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the future looks bleak particularly in Africa where the majority of forcibly displaced people live in refugee camps. The challenge to refugee-hosting nations like Kenya has never been more complicated.
Historically, Kenya’s relationship with refugees dates back to pre-independence period when it hosted refugees fleeing the Italo-Ethiopian war in the 1930s and Polish refugees who fled the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. After independence and signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Kenya further hosted over 2,000 refugees fleeing the Dictatorial Amin’s regime in Uganda in 1970s. While the refugee numbers were significantly lower in this period, it is important to note that the colonial administration and the independence government strived to resolve the problem by pursuing local integration as opposed to encampment policy which today restricts over half a million refugees in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. Before independence for example, the refugees displaced from Ethiopia were resettled in Kilifi and Taita Taveta Counties, which are marginalized and remote regions away from Kenya’s border with Ethiopia. The Polish refugees on the other hand were warmly received by the Kenyan communities, and lived in well-constructed houses in places which had cultural centres and elementary schools. Polish refugees became accepted as Nairobi’s ‘white community’ due to the socioeconomic privileges they enjoyed in the city and the general positive attitude of Kenyans towards them.
Following the breakout out of the civil war in Somalia in the late 1980s, more than 200 thousand Somali refugees fled into Kenya, consequently overrunning the capacity of the government to manage refugee affairs. Due to the scale of the displacement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took over the management of refugee affairs until later in 1998. The early 1990s influx of refugees was thus the turning point of Kenya’s asylum policy from a more hospitable approach to a restricted one.
While the government justified the restrictions of refugees as a way of managing the security related issues, the encampment policy has overtime negatively impacted both refugee and host communities socio-economically. For the refugees, they were denied the rights to move and work thus could not pursue meaningful socioeconomic opportunities outside the camps despite the fact that some of them are well educated and trained in various professions. To the hosts, the presence of the camps exacerbated environmental impacts in climatically hostile regions. Further, it limited their chances of adequately interacting with the refugees, which led to strained relationships between them and inhibited economic growth for marginalized and poor communities.
In 2021, the government of Kenya adopted a new refugee legislation- the Refugee Act of 2021- which outwardly aims at the enhancement of socio-economic integration of refugees and host communities by  among other things, facilitating their acquisition of requisite documents like refugee identity cards. The Government of Kenya also committed to the inclusion of refugee affairs in the host community and national development plans. However, a closer analysis of the new Refugee Act still reveals the government’s underlying intention of restricting refugee livelihoods and socioeconomic rights. They are still required to stay in ‘designated areas’- which is a new terminology for refugee camps. Moreover, refugees are still denied the rights to free movement and work. In essence, refugee camps like Dadaab are still securitized, and refugee issues politicized both by state officials and the general public in Kenya.
For a country with such a contrasting history of hosting refugees, one might assume that the government would appreciate the socio-economic benefits of hosting refugees having seen its benefits with the refugees who were displaced from Uganda in the 1970s. Research conducted in Kakuma has also revealed that refugees own at least 33 percent of businesses in Turkana County, employ locals and contribute about 3.4 percent to the region’s economy annually. It is clear that the benefits of hosting refugees in Kenya outweigh the challenges and the government stands to not only facilitate the growth of the refugee hosting areas through socio-economic integration, but also the country’s overall economy. This would give refugees an opportunity to pursue their dreams and hopes without having to worry about how long they would stay in a state of limbo in the crowded camps.
It is therefore important that the government of Kenya lifts the restrictions on refugee movements and right to work as that would allow them to actively and freely pursue socioeconomic opportunities. Continued encampment does not only promote a protracted refugee situation, but also negatively impacts the wellbeing outcomes for refugees. Having been in place for three decades now, it is clear that the camp is not a solution to refugee problems since it puts refugees in a situation of long-term emergency. It is, therefore, a wrong policy to purport to protect the rights of refugees while keeping them in camps with tighter restrictions. Full refugee protection can only be achieved when refugees are free to move and pursue economic opportunities beyond the camps.
The Kenyan government can do this for a number of reasons- first, because it is just and morally right. Secondly, refugees have been accorded the right to move and work in the country before and with positive outcomes. Thirdly, it makes economic sense to allow people to work rather than stay in camps and await assistance from humanitarian agencies. Finally, in a region experiencing perennial conflicts, keeping people in camps will inevitably lead to their expansion thus exerting more stress on the environment and resources of the hosting regions and the nations. As highlighted in its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), it is vital to transition from camps to settlements but with full rights to refugees.
In conclusion, Kenya’s Refugee Act of 2021 was a nod towards enhanced refugee integration and a shift from the infamous encampment policy which the country is known for. It was a demonstration of the country’s commitment to the 2018 Global Compact on refugees, especially to promote refugee self-reliance. While this is commendable, it must be noted that full self-reliance can only be achieved when the refugees are allowed to move and engage in economic activities freely without restrictions. The Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement in Kakuma, Turkana County exemplifies what can be achieved when innovation is mainstreamed in humanitarian services in a context where refugees and hosts freely interact. The Kenyan government should therefore build on the positive gains at Kalobeyei and gradually transition from encampment to integrated development which centers both the needs of refugees and host communities in a free environment. -
The views expressed in publications are those of the authors.