Kenya torn between pleasing refugees, local communities

Sunday July 07 2024

Congolese refugee Grace Kashama (L) learns tailoring under the guidance of a staff member of People for Peace and Defense of Rights (PPRD), a refugee-led NGO, during a tailoring and fashion training class in Kampala, Uganda on June 11, 2024. PHOTO | XINHUA


Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya’s Turkana County is the only home Rose Chelia has known for the past 22 years.

She fled the Second Sudanese Civil War (which eventually led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011) and found refuge at this camp in north-western part of Kenya.

For her, being asked to leave presents a dilemma: the camp is congested with limited basic supplies. But it is a home she has known since she was a child. Yet she is not a Kenyan per se.

This dilemma may, from November this year, be solved after the Kenyan government agreed to provide the estimated 700,000 refugees in Kenya with a special type of identification to enable them move around to do business or seek some type of work, or even go to school like locals.

Known as Shirika Plan, it could cost up to $1 billion to run and upgrade the Kakuma, and Dadaab Refugee camp (in Garissa County), both of which will be turned into formal municipalities.

Read: Donors yet to commit to Kenya’s refugee reform plan


“Up to now, I don’t know the direction to my home because I have never gone back after fleeing war. I have spent my childhood ages at the camp, ” Ms Chelia said in an interview last week.

Her story is not different from that of Mr Salum Ramadhan, from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He arrived here in 1992. Kakuma then was 17km2 of land that would later be divided into four sections, now all full of camps-homes for refugees for decades.

“I fled civil war in my country in 2011 and despite the challenges, I am happy Kenya gave me a second home to restart my life,” Mr Ramadhan said.

When the population at Kakuma refugee camp hit 188,000 people, congestion that led to rise in insecurity and deplorable living conditions, Kenya agreed to establish the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement located 20 kilometres, a 15km2 piece of land, in 2015.

It came after a year of negotiations between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the National Government in Nairobi, the County Government of Turkana and the host community elders.

With time, however, the government ran out of hospitality to keep offering more space. Insecurity issues also fueled suspicion that some criminals were hiding in the camps. UNHCR often refuted the claims at Kakuma, and Dadaab.

Legally, Kenya as a signatory to various international treaties at the UN and the African Union on the protection of refugees cannot force them out. It can also not shut down the camp unless they agree to. Turning the camps into municipals has become a middle ground, if it actually happens.

Read: The nightmare of refugees living in Kenya

But residents feel authorities are playing favourites to refugees at the expense of hosts. Residents of Turkana West Sub County, where these camps are located, have said, they have continued suffering the brunt of hosting refugees ranging from environmental degradation, shrinking grazing fields and competition in accessing basic services such as water and healthcare.

Officially, there are 283,969 refugees and asylum seekers at Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, as at the end of February this year.

The Kalobeyei settlement was established through a Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Programme, a Turkana-based initiative that sought to facilitate collaboration and coordination between the Kenyan government, UN agencies, development partners, NGOs, private sector and civil society to build sustainable services and economic activities at the new settlement.

The county government which is the custodian of the community land and with goodwill of the host community, first provided the required land after it together with national government and development partners committed to cultivate integration between refugees and host community.

Former Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok, argued then that the settlement was to exploit the socio-economic impact of the presence of refugees on Turkana, who often attracted humanitarian support.

Authorities now say integration, rather than encampment, will help both sides of the fence.

Integration was backed by 2017 study by the International Finance Corporation. Titled Kakuma as a Marketplace, it established that Kakuma, consisting of more than 180,000 refugees and 60, 000 locals had an economy of $56 million (KSh7.2 billion) per year, based on household consumption.

The current Shirika Plan, a multi-year initiative aims to promote the socioeconomic inclusion of refugees in Kenya by transforming camps into integrated settlements for both refugees and asylum seekers. It favours people like Ms Chelia and Mr Ramadhan who don’t have plans to go back home soon.

Governor Jeremiah Lomorukai says he supports the Plan, but as long as it does not exclude locals.

“Counties hosting refugees grapple with high poverty levels and their plight needs attention as well,” he told The EastAfrican.

“For a successful transition and integration, Shirika plan should involve these host communities in resource sharing, employment, among other benefits.” Mr Lomorukai said.

Read: Refugees, locals to mix as Kenya closes camps

The governor was on June 20 (the World Refugee Day), part of a key stakeholders’ appraisal forum in Nairobi to formally adopt the plan as part of World Refugees Day commemoration that was also attended UNHCR Country Representative Caroline Van Buren, UN-Resident Coordinator Dr Stephen Jackson, Principal Secretary for State Department of Foreign Affairs Dr Korir Sing’oei and his Immigration and Citizenship counterpart Prof Julius Bitok.

They all pledged to support the Plan that will see current refugee camps in both Kakuma and Dadaab restructured into modern urban centers with requisite infrastructure to serve both the locals and the integrated refugees in phases between 2024-2031.

Giving an experience of Kalobeyei settlement camp, they said that the current state does not reflect the true essence of integration in terms of sharing resources, information and socio-economic opportunities.

There are other fears beyond economic issues, such as erosion of Turkana culture as refugees inject new ways of life into the County.
At the moment, shortage of rations has World Food Programme to stop a universal service to ‘needs-based’ support. WFP’s Country Director in Kenya Lauren Landis said in June that in this approach, WFP will provide food assistance based on the food security and socio-economic status of each family.

“Currently, 650,000 refugees supported by WFP receive the same level of food assistance. Providing assistance according to levels of need ensures that the most vulnerable are prioritised based on available resources, while weaning the least vulnerable off humanitarian assistance and supporting them to become self-reliant instead,” WFP’s Country Director said.