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Will the new refugee act spark any changes in Kenya?

Kenya hosts the second largest population of refugees in Africa, with most refugees fleeing from neighbouring countries Somalia and South Sudan. The majority of the refugees in Kenya (around 85%) live long term in two large refugee camps: Dadaab and Kakuma.

While Kenya has been able to offer a safe haven amongst countries with volatile security situations, refugees within these camps have historically suffered under immense restrictions and very little rights. Under the previous Refugee Act of 2006, refugees were not allowed to leave the camps without explicit permission. This, combined with limited rights to work and few education opportunities, mean that refugees slip very easily into precariousness, poverty and fading chances to live fulfilling, dignified lives. Their new country offered them safety, but at the cost of many basic human rights.

In 2021, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta signed a new Refugee Act, aimed at improving rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. The act promised improved education, employment and integration rights and opportunities, signalling a major shift in the prospects of refugees after decades of living confined within camps. Immediately, the news was welcomed by the international community, with NGOs calling it a progressive law with the potential to bring Kenya’s ongoing refugee crisis to a resolution.

But, is the new refugee act all it seems?

In March 2021, just before the act was signed, Kenya’s government issued the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) an 14 day ultimatum to submit a plan to close the refugee camps, with the threat to ‘forcibly return refugees to unsafe countries’ if the deadline was missed. The UNHCR submitted a plan at the beginning of April, and a final date of June 2022 was set in order to close the Dadaab and Kakuma camps completely.

Although closure of the camps can be seen as a necessary step in order to find suitable and long lasting solutions for refugees, the urgency in which the Kenyan government is operating has raised concerns. A Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) report states that without clear and sustainable solutions for refugees in the camps, they risk losing access to humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, with the collapse of the camps economy which many refugees benefit from setting the stage for a new devastating displacement crisis.

Whilst the new Refugee Act in Kenya, by assuring increased rights and opportunities for refugees, seems like it may be the solution to the plight of those living in the camps, specialists and legal experts are not yet convinced. The act focuses on the rights of refugees from the East African Community (EAC), which comprises Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania Uganda, and the newest member, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This means that refugees mainly from South Sudan (28% of the refugee population) and DRC (6% of the refugee population) will benefit the most from these new arrangements, because as EAC citizens they will be given the right to work and live anywhere in Kenya, after applying for a work permit.

For this portion of the refugee population, the new act is encouraging. But what about the more than 60% of Kenya’s refugees who are not from EAC?

Things are a little more ambiguous for them, most of which are from Somalia. The new bill states that refugees with qualifications recognised by Kenya’s qualifications authority will be allowed to obtain relevant work. To get existing educational certificates to be recognised in Kenya would likely require refugees to leave the camps to travel to Nairobi offices to begin the lengthy and complicated process. This is dependent on them even still holding the relevant documents, as many fled conflict years ago.

The living situation faced by refugees when camps are closed is also not made clear in the new bill. It appears that those without EAC citizenship will be directed to live in ‘designated areas’, which raises questions about whether refugees will be forced to continue existing without significant freedoms, like choosing where to live. The right to work and the need to live in designated areas seem to contradict each other, and it’s unclear which one would take priority if a refugee was to obtain a job outside of a designated area. The act mentions the ability to provide refugees with movement passes, but it is again unknown what conditions may surround this.

Now we are approaching the end of June 2022, the initial date of the closing of the camps, and camp residents still live in limbo with little clarity on what their future holds. The Refugee Act initially provided some comfort, but with many unanswered questions and a deadline looming, uncertainty is rife.

For decades, Kenya has shown generosity to refugees arriving at its borders. The new Refugee Act has the potential to show Kenya’s dedication to extend this solidarity to allow refugees to integrate into the country successfully, contributing to Kenya’s growing economy, accessing services and settling into a brighter future. The closing of the camps has sparked concern, but with a promising shift in thinking emerging from the Kenyan government, this could be the start of something new for the camp's residents, many of which are now second or third generation residents of the camps who have known nothing else but a life in Kenya.

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