The New Refugee Act in Kenya and What it Means for Refugees

For 30 years, Kenya has hosted more than 750,000 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Burundi. While most live in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, a minority—more than 100,000 refugees—live in urban areas. This has made Kenya’s refugees heavily reliant on aid and prevented them from seeking alternative livelihoods.

For years, Kenya’s encampment policy prevented refugees from participating in the country’s economy because of the lack of freedom of movement, lengthy processes for getting  refugee  IDs, and opaqueness in accessing work permits.

This situation, however, has evolved with the Kenyan government recently recognizing the protracted refugee situation and the limitations of the encampment policy, which saw camps with a temporary and emergency lens and did not recognize the refugees as agents of economic development. Over time, notable progress has been seen with increased refugee contribution to the local economy as entrepreneurs, workers, employers, and consumers with various partners support the enhancement of refugee and host community economic resilience and self-reliance.

At the same time, research has shown that  camps  have negatively impacted the environment. The poorly planned conditions of previous  camps have significantly strained scarce water resources, forest, and vegetation cover. The environmental damage has also acted as a catalyst for conflict between host and  refugee  communities.   

Kenya’s Refugee Act of 2021

Kenya’s passage of the  Refugee  Act 2021 could be a game changer. If fully implemented, the Act offers refugees freedom of movement, the right to work, and access to financial services, among other rights. Kenya’s new Refugee Act recognizes the right to work under Article 28(5) and notes explicitly the “special circumstances of refugees.”

One of the central pillars of the new  refugee  policy is turning refugee  camps into urban settlement areas. For instance, the Kakuma  refugee  camp  has  over 2,500  businesses and various urban-based livelihoods, a growing consumption economy of  U.S. $56 million, 3 percent contributions to the local gross regional product, a 6 percent increase per capita for the host community incomes, and an increase in employment by 3 percent. The area has turned into a city more than a traditional  refugee  camp. 

There are three durable solutions to refugee situations: return to the country of origin, third-country resettlement, or integration in the countries of refuge.  Additionally, Kenya’s Refugee Act 2021 envisions that the refugees in the camps will be turned into integrated settlements, thus creating opportunities to integrate the refugees into the host community. While the new law does not elaborate on the integration process, this is the best alternative among the traditional durable solutions for refugees because  most refugees are unlikely to return to their home countries, and resettlement in third countries is already limited to less than one percent of refugees. Given the political headwinds in Western countries on immigration, this alternative is becoming less and less possible.

Since 2019, the Turkana County Government in Kenya has piloted possibilities of economically integrating  refugees and the host community through the 15-year, multi-agency plan, the Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Programme (KISEPD). The plan has become a hallmark for  refugee  economic inclusion by integrating refugee  programs into the Local County Integrated Development Planning.

This has made it possible to advance access to protection for populations of concern, improved access to socio-economic integration, support for local solutions, opportunities for expanding investment in education and health, and access to the labor markets and other livelihood opportunities, such as the IFC Kakuma Kalobeyei Challenge Fund (KKCF) that has increased refugee private sector participation and increased opportunities for self-reliance.

The planning of the Kalobeyei refugee settlement through the KISEDP program additionally demonstrates how refugees and the host community could settle in an accessible, vibrant, and functional urban settlement with adequate social and physical infrastructure and diverse economic opportunities. With the  Refugee Act of 2021, there is an expectation for expanded refugee rights and possibilities of greater financial inclusion.

Indeed, by transforming refugee transitioning  camps into settlements in the new law, there is hope for providing a better pathway for localizing refugee  response. It also enhances local governments’ capacity to respond better and share the  responsibility of hosting refugees  hosting burden while sustainably addressing the needs of a growing and diversifying population’s participation in local urban governance and  refugees’ inclusion in local economic development.  While these changes are happening, it is essential to note that while inclusive legal frameworks and global  refugee  compacts are important, countering institutional barriers requires spirited public leadership and local partnerships to translate abstract principles and norms into concrete action.  

Kakuma Municipality: Momentum Towards Implementation of Refugee Act 2021  

 On March 30, 2023, Jeremiah Ekamais Lomorukai Napotikan, Turkana County Governor conferred municipality status to Kakuma Municipality, including the Kakuma refugee camp, Kalobeyei integrated settlement, and Kakuma town. Establishing this municipality is a significant step towards creating a spatial and institutional framework for transforming the camps into settlements (as indicated in the Refugee Act of 2021) and creating a better environment for socio-economic integration for  refugee  and host communities in Kakuma and Kalobeyei using an area-based approach. 

While the new refugee law does not expressly demonstrate how refugees can participate in urban development for the newly created Kakuma municipality in Turkana County (or the Daadab Municipality in Garissa County), the fact the law supports the settlements approach and refugee  inclusion in development planning at the local and national level will provide the needed enabling environment for enhancing socio-economic integration and the aims of self-reliance. The two municipalities are expected to produce public goods and services that will undoubtedly contribute towards economic growth, improved business climate, and increased opportunities for employment creation.

However, Kenyan urban development faces immense challenges. Local governments need more resources to provide essential services and infrastructure, strengthening governance performance in urban areas. This reality requires a more multi-stakeholder approach to link humanitarian work with urban development in the refugee-hosting regions, given the opportunities provided by the Refugee Act of 2021. Development partners working in the Kenyan urban development context—like the World Bank and UN-Habitat in Kenya—should see this as a significant area of collaboration with the national government and the respective counties and municipalities to ensure increased capacity for local governments to better provide integrated services for both host and the refugee communities. 

At a time when many countries are adopting restrictive refugee policies, Kenya’s enactment of socio-economic integration for refugees should be applauded and supported despite the gaps in the laws and policies. The success of Kenya’s model will send a positive signal to other refugee-hosting countries that refugees are not a burden but can contribute to their and the host country’s development if offered a conducive policy environment.