CLEMENTS: Kenya’s generosity towards refugees is impressive

Wednesday March 27 2019

Kelly Clements, the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NGARE | NMG


The Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements spoke to Fred Oluoch on the emerging trends in East Africa and the global restructuring of the UN body.


East Africa is competing for attention with crises in the rest of the world, for example in Syria and Yemen. Are we likely to see more focus on the region?

That is one of the reasons for my visit to Kakuma refugee camp [in northwestern Kenya]—we are trying to bring the world’s attention back to East Africa.

Countries in this region have been hosting refugees for decades and they need support from the international community to handle their growing humanitarian needs.

What is your general assessment of the living conditions in Kakuma?


This is my first visit to Kakuma and one of the reasons I wanted to come is that Kenya has hosted refugees of different nationalities for almost 30 years in this part of the country.

It is not an emergency situation anymore and things are starting to stabilise but we still have refugees coming in from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

Private sector investments are also growing. We are no longer approaching the situation from just a humanitarian aid angle, but we are also seeking solutions.

On economic inclusion, the target is not just refugees who want to rebuild their lives but also the Kenyan host community. Indeed, I am impressed by their continued generosity over the decades.

There are concerns that funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is dwindling at a time the refugee population is expanding rapidly across the globe. What impact will that have on the services you are offering?

The issue of funding is one of my primary tasks. Our projects continue to grow.

Last year, we received a record amount from donors, but unfortunately, it has not closed the funding gap. This makes our job difficult.

We have to identify priority areas. Meanwhile, we are trying to bring more donors on board, particularly for places like Kakuma.

Our interactions with the refugees reveal that most of them are unwilling to return to their home countries. That decision is really up to them and not the UNHCR.

Parts of South Sudan for example are still unsafe so it would be difficult for those who fled to return. We are, however, hopeful that the peace process will hold and that this will encourage refugees to go back home.

Kakuma is experimenting with the concept of economic inclusion. Can it be replicated in Dadaab?

Yes. While I have not been to Dadaab, I have experience in Ethiopia where they have done fantastic work with private sector partners.

They have focussed on economic inclusion, energy and education not only for the refugees, but also Ethiopians.

Dadaab, too, has the potential for such programmes. This does not mean it will be easy, but there are programmes we could initiate to sustain the refugees and the local population.
Incorporating biometrics allows the refugees to own their agencies and UNHCR as a service provider and the Kenyan government to have a sound assessment of the situation. We are moving from a humanitarian to a development approach.

We want to see how it will be replicated not just in Dadaab but also in other parts of the world.

Do you think Kakuma is changing for the better?

Talking to the team in Kakuma, I realised that there has been a gradual change. Nothing was in place when refugees started coming to Kakuma but over time, it has been demonstrated that it is a good thing when the host community benefits from the economic opportunities.

For example, I discovered that government officials shop in the market where refugees produce goods. It is a win-win situation since attitudes are changing.

The global restructuring of UNHCR has raised fears of job losses, especially in Kenya...

There will be a change of roles and not job losses. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who served as head of UNHCR for 10 years [2005-2015], is of the view that the organisation has become distant from the people we are serving as it is much more centralised.

He believes, just as I do, that if you bring decision-making closer to the people then you become a more effective organisation.

So we are restructuring internally and strengthening country operations as in Kenya, to allow regional bureaus such as Nairobi to make decisions without having to refer to Geneva.

We hope this will strengthen the organisation and make it more effective. These changes will make us understand better how development partners think. We already have the skills that we need within UNHCR so it is a matter of changing roles, not losing jobs.