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Kenya pioneering new refugee integration plan

18 June 20240 comments

Kenya’s new refugee laws are a radical attempt to address the issue of protracted displacement and could prove to be a model for the rest of the world.

At the heart of Kenya’s ‘Refugee Act 2021’ is a bid to integrate refugee communities into the broader society.

If fully implemented, the act would mean refugees have freedom of movement, the right to work, and access to financial services.

The act recognises the right to work and explicitly describes the “special circumstances of refugees.”

Another central tenet of the new policy is turning refugee camps into urban settlement areas.

The giant Kakuma refugee camp has more than 2,500 businesses and various urban-based employment opportunities.

The camp has a burgeoning growing consumption economy worth US$56 million, or three per cent of the gross regional product.

Recently the camp has seen a six per cent increase per capita for host community incomes, and a three per cent increase in employment, meaning the area more resembles a city than a traditional refugee camp. 

The UN has identified three durable solutions to refugee situations: return to the country of origin, third-country resettlement, or integration in the countries of refuge.

Kenya’s new policy sees camps and the people living in them turned into integrated settlements, creating opportunities to integrate the refugees into the host community.

Observers say that Kenyan lawmakers see this as the best alternative among the traditional durable solutions for refugees because most refugees are unlikely to return to their home countries.

Also, resettlement in third countries is already limited to less than one percent of refugees.

And the rise of immigration as a divisive political issue in western countries on immigration means third country resettlement is becoming less and less possible.

Since 2019, the Turkana County Government in Kenya has piloted the economic integration of refugees and the host communities through the 15-year, multi-agency plan.

This plan has become a template for refugee economic inclusion through integrating refugee programs into the local development planning.

Evaluations of the pilot have found it has improved access to socio-economic integration, support for local solutions, opportunities for expanding investment in education and health, and access to the labour market and business opportunities.

They have also found the model increased refugee private sector participation and increased opportunities for self-reliance.

NGO Refugees International has hailed the Kenyan policy, saying “refugee inclusion in development planning at the local and national level will provide the needed enabling environment for enhancing socio-economic integration and the aims of self-reliance”.

“At a time when many countries are adopting restrictive refugee policies, Kenya’s enactment of socio-economic integration for refugees should be applauded and supported despite the gaps in the laws and policies,” RI said.

“The success of Kenya’s model will send a positive signal to other refugee-hosting countries that refugees are not a burden but can contribute to their and the host country’s development if offered a conducive policy environment,” the agency said.

For three decades, Kenya has hosted more than 750,000 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

While most live in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, around 100,000 refugees live in urban areas, making Kenya’s refugees heavily reliant on aid and prevented them from seeking alternative livelihoods.

Kenya’s ‘encampment’ policy has traditionally prevented refugees from participating in the country’s economy, stymied freedom of movement, imposed lengthy processes for getting refugee IDs and has mostly denied work permits.