How Implementing the New Regulations for the 2021 Refugee Act Can Improve the Lives of Refugees in Kenya

Kenya’s Refugee Act 2021 has been in force for a little over a year, and has introduced some key changes that have the potential to greatly enhance the economic inclusion of more than half a million refugees living in the country. However the true impact of the new law on refugees’ legal status in Kenya – including where they can live, their ability to work and how they can be integrated in Kenyan society – lies in the details of regulations that the government has been developing over the past months.

For refugees in Kenya to be able not only to survive, but thrive, and to fully contribute to the local economy, the new regulations should:

  • Address the backlog in asylum registrations. This will be an important part of enabling refugees to access legal status, protection and livelihoods. Asylum applicants currently face long waiting times, which delays the issuance of a refugee identity card without which they cannot access other important documents, including work permits. 
  • Create new refugee identity cards. The 2021 Refugee Act states that refugee identity cards will have at least the same status as the identity cards issued to other foreign nationals in Kenya (commonly known as “Alien Cards”). It is expected  that the process for issuing identity cards will be faster, and that they will enable refugees to access mobile money and banking services which are key enablers for refugees to support the local economy more meaningfully. Indeed, current Know Your Customer regulations in Kenya do not recognize refugee identity cards as valid forms of identification, which excludes refugees from key financial services such as mobile money and bank accounts. Accessing these services is essential to their becoming self-reliant.
  • Lift restrictions on freedom of movement. For refugees to access employment and to start and run businesses, freedom of movement is essential. The new Act requires refugees to live in “designated areas” instead of camps. Yet spelling out what “designated areas” means is critical to refugees’ economic inclusion, and we hope that the Act will remove the requirements that refugees live in camps.This will be key to helping refugees achieve their full economic, social and cultural participation in Kenya.
  • Simplify and clarify the system for work permits. While refugees in Kenya have the legal right to apply for work permits in Kenya, in practice these are rarely granted. This is in part due to the difficulty refugees face in providing the many documents that are required to obtain a work permit, including a recommendation from a potential employer and proof that the job cannot be adequately filled by a Kenyan citizen. There is also a lack of clarity of the procedure in doing so. Kenya’s new Refugee Act recognizes the right to work under Article 28(5), and specifically notes the “special circumstances of refugees.” It will be critical to clarify and simplify what this means so that refugees can access formal work in Kenya, which would provide them with legal protections and allow them to pay taxes that would benefit Kenya’s economy.

We welcomed the passing of this law in late 2021, and recognize the potential it has to reshape Kenya’s refugee policies to ones that respect human rights and enable refugees to contribute to the economy and become self-sufficient. If implemented well, the Act could make Kenya a global leader in humanitarian and development responses among its large and diverse refugee population. However, the details matter, and Kenya should not miss this opportunity to enact meaningful changes to its refugee policy.

As part of the “Let Them Work” initiative, a joint initiative between Refugees International (RI) and the Center for Global Development (CDG) with support from the IKEA Foundation, RI and CDG published country case studies on refugees’ access to the labor market in Kenya as well as Ethiopia, Colombia and Peru. Now in the second phase of the project, RI’s work in Kenya has focused on advocacy in the context of Kenya’s new Refugee Act of 2022, and in particular on the aspects relating to refugees’ economic inclusion

Cover Photo: People are seen in a drought affected area in Mandera, Kenya on December 02, 2022. Photo by Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.