Kenya’s radical solution to age-old refugee problem

Saturday May 20 2023
dadaab camp

Refugees walking in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world. PHOTO | AFP


Kenya’s two biggest refugee camps could be transformed into new permanent urban centres in a move to relieve Nairobi of the security burden while sustaining its humanitarian obligations.

The changeover, expected to be in effect within five years, will mean all the refugees currently hosted in Dadaab and Kakuma will neither be forced out nor given citizenships but will be granted special IDs with which they can validly conduct income-generating activities in Kenya as their camps are turned into permanent centres, rather than tented cities.

Kenya is the fifth largest refugee hosting country in Africa, and the 13th largest asylum country in the world, hosting about 700,000 people fleeing persecution, violence or drought. A majority reside in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, with the capital hosting just 91,000.

But the camps have been at the centre of controversies in the past decade. Nairobi always wanted to shut them down, alleging terror merchants were plotting raids from Dadaab, taking advantage of crowding to recruit followers. At one point in 2015, Kenya had signed a tripartite agreement with Somalia and the UN refugee agency UNHCR for the voluntary return of refugees. However, lack of conducive environment in Somalia and the fact that refugees couldn’t be forced to return home saw just 80,000 of the estimated 400,000 refugees leave the camp.

This time, Kenya says it wants Dadaab and Kakuma to be open for business and is asking financiers to help erect social amenities that will make it easier to police the centres.

Read: Horn nations keep passing refugee baton


Weaning off aid

The plan dubbed Nashiriki, Swahili for “I cooperate” aims to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are supported to transition from dependence on humanitarian aid to self-reliance and are empowered to be resilient against recurring shocks.

“A majority of these refugees are asylum seekers from the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa regions,” said Immigration and Citizen Services Principal Secretary Julius Bitok.

Security agencies observe that al-Shabaab were able to penetrate the Dadaab camp by taking advantage of the limits to policing UN-run sites.

Kenyan Commissioner for Refugees Affairs John Burugu told The EastAfrican that the integrated approach will mirror a rural-urban establishment in Kenya, with security taken care of by the government.

Burugu explained that the authorities want to upgrade camps to expand opportunities for refugees, asylum seekers and host communities while enhancing government’s capacity to manage future refugee influxes.

The goal is to create a planned self-sustaining ecosystem with a shift of focus from humanitarian to development-oriented objectives and support for host communities.

“The development will benefit all parties involved. Aid agencies will need to make necessary adjustments to their programming to align with the new settlement model... These agencies will still play a critical role, albeit under the leadership of the government for progressive and sustainable settlements,” he added.

As part of the transition plan, Turkana County has elevated Kakuma town into a municipality. In addition, Garissa Governor Nathif Jama Adam confirmed this week that he will soon sign a charter that elevates Dadaab into a municipality.

This will attract investors to set up permanent structures that will gradually phase off the makeshift tents that dot the camp.
UN agencies, donor partners and NGOs working in the two camps pledged support for the plan.

“Currently, a multitude of stakeholders led by the national and county governments, UNHCR, UN agencies, donors, missions, international financial institutions and NGOs are in the process of developing a plan. This process is a whole of government-whole of society approach aimed at ensuring precision and accuracy,” Burugu said.

The project is coming at a time the government is seeking to re-open its borders with Ethiopia and Somalia, which have been closed over insecurity. This week, Nairobi announced the Somali border crossings closed in 2011 will reopen by August.

Read: Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp at 'breaking point’

The Kenya-Somalia border was closed when the Kenya Defence Forces launched Operation Linda Nchi to fight al-Shabaab insurgents, whose criminal activities had increased in the country. Kenya had argued that its border points had become avenues for arms and contraband smuggling from Somalia and camps had become a breeding ground for terrorism attacks.
Kenya has asserted that the 2013 Westgate attack, the 2015 Garissa University attack and 2019 Dusit complex attack were planned and executed from Dadaab.

“Kenya has stood on the frontlines of challenging terrorism, upholding humanitarianism and pursuing global peace and security. We, however, have no grounds to keep compromising the security of our citizens in the face of foot-dragging, double-standards and lack of commitment in the rapid settlement of Somali refugees in their homeland,” a former Interior PS Dr Karanja Kibicho said at the time.

Terrorism is still a major concern but countries in the neighbourhood have been changing tact.

Last year, the government of Somalia launched a major offensive against al Shabaab, recovering huge sections of captured territories. In February, Somalia’s frontier neighbours issued a declaration for joint operations, including sharing intel on movements of refugees and their activities.

Security officials have, however, cautioned that the settlement plan needs to be carried out carefully, so it does not become a pull factor for asylum seekers and refugees.

“We are having asylum seekers in Trans Nzoia. These are largely individuals who are coming from the DRC, Uganda and Tanzania and the numbers are rising.

“Ordinarily that place is supposed to be a transit point with a capacity of just around 400 but we are already seeing numbers in excess of 1,000,” Interior PS Raymond Omollo said during a stakeholder meeting on the settlement plan in Nairobi.

Fighting Shabaab

The UK is funding a programme dubbed “Deris Wanaag” in Somali, which translates to “Good Neighbourliness,” aimed at finding a lasting solution to the perennial insecurity and instability in the Horn of Africa region posed by the al Shabaab and which will involve development of permanent and secure Kenya-Somalia border infrastructure.

Read: Refugees in Uganda decry WFP food aid cuts

Last week, Kenya launched an intergovernmental steering committee to align the refugee transition plan with its national security priorities among them the recently enacted Refugee Act (2021) that outlines privileges and opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers and occasions when such can be withdrawn.

According to the Act, all registered refugees will enjoy a right to civil registration and identification.

“At present, over 592,000 refugees in Kenya have been issued with refugee IDs with the exception of newly arrived asylum seekers or those in the process of having their refugee status determined,” said Burugu.

Refugees shall also access permits to enable them to engage in gainful enterprise and shall be eligible for employment.