A Closer Look at Kenya’s Refugee Policy

In 2021, Kenya passed its long-awaited Refugees Act, and with it, a slew of progressively hailed changes were instituted. This piece aims to illustrate Kenya’s refugee policy from a wholistic standpoint, that not only illustrates the marked improvements within the Act from its antecedent, but to bring to the fore also, the other surrounding policy that constitute the rest of the framework.

Undoubtedly, the enactment of the Act was a cause for celebration among all stakeholders, owing to the substantive nature and expansive scope of the reforms it introduced. The Act begins with the characteristically broad definition adopted through the 1969 OAU Convention, to include anyone who is fleeing external aggression, internal conflict, or events ‘seriously disturbing public order’. That in itself, is an aspect that has hailed great praise world over. Nonetheless, the overarching pillars of celebration are four-fold.

The first is the right to work. Section 28 of the Refugees Act, 2021, accords refugees the right to engage in gainful employment, establish entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as to practice professionally, where applicable. This right to employment is buttressed by the second important addition: the right to access documentation, enshrined in Section 28(4). These documents serve as pivotal factors in fully realizing the right to work, as they function as instrumental tools for obtaining permits and passes essential for employment opportunities. The elevation of the recognition of the Refugee Identity Card to equal that of an Alien Card is another welcomed addition, by way of Section 28(7).Thus, refugees are much better placed with regards to accessing both public and private services. A final triumph of worthy discussion is that refugees now ought to be included in development plans. The County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs), mandated by the County Government Act, inter alia, serve the purpose of enabling counties to formulate comprehensive plans outlining their objectives and goals for the subsequent five-year period. These CIDP’s have been crucial in tackling the issues faced by refugees, since it has ensured that the initiatives and advancements under the Act are not stagnant, but continue to be dynamic in their application.

In order to explain how this is possible, some context may be necessary. In 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) marked a welcome shift in refugee policy at a global level. The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) advocated for the inclusion of refugees in the communities where they are to settle from the outset of their arrival. The inaugural implementation of this principle is exemplified by the Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (KISEDP) in 2018. Phase I of KISEDP yielded significant achievements, including formal recognition of refugees in legal frameworks and increased socio-economic integration between refugees and hosts. Investments in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and entrepreneurship enhanced the well-being of both groups, while large-scale investments stimulated economic growth in Turkana West. Guided by principles emphasizing government leadership, community centrality, sustainability, and partnership, Phase I demonstrated the lasting contribution of refugees to Turkana’s economy and the importance of international engagement in supporting both host communities and county development. This set the tone for Kenya’s intention of instituting a progressive refugee policy.

Thus, Kenya documented its CRRF obligations in 2020 with the Support for Host Community and Refugee Empowerment (SHARE). SHARE was illustrative of Kenya’s documented attempt at revolutionising refugee policy. More than that, the Government of Kenya doubled down on these efforts with the most recent creation and implementation of the Socioeconomic Hubs for Integrated Refugee Inclusion in Kenya (SHIRIKA) Plan in 2023.

This comprehensive plan seeks to:

(i) Alleviate the burden on refugee-hosting communities by garnering extra financial, technical, and material support through a shared responsibility approach;

(ii) expedite the shift from refugee camps to integrated human settlements and thriving economic hubs;

(iii) promote socio-economic inclusion for both refugees and host communities, fostering improved self-reliance and resilience;

(iv) facilitate the transition of refugee basic service delivery from a humanitarian-led approach to government systems.

Therefore, the SHIRIKA plan epitomizes policymakers’ response to criticisms directed at the Refugees Act of 2021; most prominent of which, Kenya’s encampment policy. On the other hand, the SHIRIKA plan has been touted by some as the ‘Model for the future’. The plan aims to use integrated settlements like the KISEDP as ‘building blocks’ for the SHIRIKA Plan. KISEDP Phase II has since been implemented, while at the same time, at the opposite side of the country, the Garissa Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (GISEDP) has taken effect. Both the initiatives leverage the CIDP’s in the respective counties (Turkana and Garissa). This then allows one to harken back to the importance of Section 35 of the Refugee Act and the CIDP. As both the documents of the KISEDP and GISEDP illustrate, the heart of each initiative, are the goals, aims, and objectives of the respective County plans.  

That said, while a reader may peruse this article with well-founded thoughts of praise for Kenya’s refugee policy, it would be improper to end without a critique of the same. No policy is without fault, and this case is no different. Some authors such as Michael Owiso have termed Kenya’s policy to be one with inherent confusions and contradiction, in three areas: between encampment and closure, encampment and integration, and integration and closure. However, such a critique is no longer apt, given that the SHIRIKA plan is clear about doing one thing: transitioning from encampment to integration.  

Yet, the most important thing to keep in mind, in the interest of final summation, is that, on paper, Kenya’s policy seems to progressive, and while plaudits are due in this regard, it remains to be seen how the aptly drafted documents translate to the practical experience. In the meantime, the policies in place are simply too new to conduct a worthwhile critique. Thus, the upshot of Kenya’s policy is akin to a captivating novel whose concluding chapters are yet unwritten; leaving us in eager anticipation of what is to come.  

Zayn Aslam
ALN Academy

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