Foreigners enjoying refugee status in Kenya can now integrate into society and participate in economic and social development as per a new law assented to by President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday.
The policy shift is contained in The Refugee Act and creates the office of the Commissioner of Refugees, whose mandate is to ensure the integration of refugees into host communities.
The Act further requires the government to facilitate access to required documents that will ensure refugees are legally able to undertake economic and social activities. This is a major improvement to the repealed Act, which while giving refugees access to basic rights, made it difficult for them to be integrated into local communities, largely forcing them to live in camps.
To ensure that refugees are fully integrated, the new law offers the shared use of social amenities like schools and hospitals and ensures that the national and county governments take into consideration refugee concerns in their sustainable and environmental plans.
Until the new law, a refugee was perceived to be “integrated” when they became a citizen through naturalisation or when they enjoyed a legal status that provides for effective access to socio-economic and civil fundamental rights.
The law also envisions that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organisations will pay special attention to the plight of women, children and persons with disabilities.
It creates three new administrative institutions that are tasked with handling refugee matters.
The department of Refugees of Services will be the main administrative body.
The Refugee Advisory committee will formulate policy and serve as convener of the representatives of all government departments. It will advise the Cabinet secretary on matters relating to refugees and will be chaired by the Commissioner of Refugee Affairs.
The third institution is the Refugee Status Appeals Committee, which is tasked with hearing appeals relating to the rejection of application for refugees status or the termination of status.
Earlier this year, Kenya and the UN reached a deal to gradually empty refugee camps and shut them down from June 2022.
But it is some refugees at those camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab that saw the government at loggerheads with the UN over their alleged links to terrorism and smuggling.
The two sides agreed that refugees may either be integrated, taken to a third country or voluntarily repatriated. However, there had been no clear law to guide what form the integration of refugees should take.
Those exempted from camps were those who could prove financial ability to cater for their needs outside of the camps where inhabitants relied on rations from the UN and other partner agencies.
The repealed law gave refugees the right to access to basic rights. Among other things, these include being given work permits to access the labour market, opportunities to establish small businesses and self-employment activities, and access to legal statuses to apply for permanent residency.