There are over a half a million refugees in Kenya, trapped in protracted refugee situations with few opportunities for self-reliance. In Dadaab refugee camp, some Somali refugees have stayed for as long as 25 years. Their prolonged stay is not in any way illegal but it should be a concern to all that ought to find durable solutions for them.
A tripartite agreement signed in 2013 by UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia set out a framework for voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees willing to return home. Voluntary repatriation being one of the durable solutions for refugee situations, it is expected that a few Somalis if not all, will voluntarily return home.
The other two durable options acceptable internationally are resettlement to third countries and local integration.
Resettlement depends on quotas decided upon by donor countries. It is often not a reliable solution for majority because slots are reserved for vulnerable cases particularly refugees with more serious protection concerns.
Local integration on the other hand allows refugees to attain a wider range of rights including acquisition of citizenship in their country of asylum. It is also a social and cultural process of adaptation and acceptance that can enable refugees to contribute to the social and economic life of their asylum country.
Somali refugees in Dadaab share cultural similarities with local Kenyans who are also Somalis. The two have the same origins and have peacefully lived together for over 20 years. The mere fact that they speak the same language with locals and have even intermarried, should be inspiring enough to have them locally integrated, shall they choose not to return home.
The principle of local integration is firmly established in international refugee law. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention acknowledges the role of local integration and the importance of citizenship in achieving durable solutions for refugees. According to article 34 of the Convention, “the contracting states shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings.”
Kenya is party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 Organization of African Union Convention governing specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa. In fact, article 2 (6) of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya states that any international convention or treaty will become a part of the Kenyan law. The provisions within these conventions are therefore part of the national law.
It is therefore in Kenya’s best interest under its international obligation, to establish what it can contribute towards finding durable solutions for these refugees. Currently, the Refugees Act 2006, through an encampment policy, does not allow refugees to live outside designated areas. It demands that all refugees should stay in camps at all times unless traveling to seek education or medical treatment.
The sudden enforcement of the refugee encampment policy in 2014 which was strengthened by the controversial amendment to the security act has had an unpleasant impact on refugees who had for many years established themselves in urban areas. The enforcement prompted ‘Usalama’ watch and cracking down on refugees in their urban settlements. This was however largely criticised by the civil society as a violation of human rights. Considering this and other concerns, there should be a discussion on what workable solution for Kenya’s refugee situation that has not been tried yet.
If Somali refugees who have stayed in Kenya for over fifteen years, and are not willing to return home, were to be locally integrated, Kenya would possibly benefit in a number of ways:
De-congestion of Dadaab refugee camp will be the immediate benefit. This will create space for environmental rehabilitation in severely degraded sites within and around the camp. It will also make it easy for authorities to manage camps and monitor activities across the Kenya Somalia boarder which is claimed to be porous.
Locally integrated refugees will become Kenyan citizens and will begin contributing to Kenya’s economy. They may not necessarily be allocated land but they will constitute a new labor force with skills that can be utilised to benefit villages in which they shall settle. With carefully planned integration, Kenya may generally benefit from long term donor supported infrastructural development. In other words, a huge chunk of aid currently directed to refugee camps will be made available in Kenyan villages for development. It will also have an additional appeal for Kenya as a human rights defender. Freedom of movement and the right to work are two fundamental human rights that are often denied to refugees confined in camps.
With political will, the process of local integration can be smooth. African countries including Angola, Guinea, Gabon, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia have within the last four decades locally integrated refugees successfully. In 1981, Tanzania granted citizenship to approximately 25,000 Rwandese refugees. In 2003, it declared settlement and free movement for approximately 3,000 Somali refugees with the possibility of local integration. More recently in 2014, over 162,000 Burundi refugees were all granted citizenship.
Kenya has a good opportunity to formulate a new legal framework within which the process of local integration of refugees can be anchored. Perhaps the new proposed amendment bill to the Refugee Act, 2006 that has been under review since 2011 can be ridden upon.