There are more than half a million refugees in Kenya, trapped in protracted situations with few opportunities for self-reliance. Some Somali refugees have stayed at the Dadaab camp for 25 years. Their prolonged stay is not in any way illegal but it should be a concern to all that we ought to find lasting solutions for them.
A tripartite agreement signed in 2013 by the UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia set out a framework for voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. It is expected that a few Somalis, if not all, will voluntarily return home.
The other two durable options accepted 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 the majority because slots are reserved for vulnerable cases, particularly refugees with more serious protection concerns.
Local integration 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 Kenyan-Somalis. The two have the same origins and have peacefully lived together for more than 20 years. The fact that they speak the same language with locals and have even intermarried should be inspiring enough to have them locally integrated, should they choose not to return home.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention acknowledges the role of local integration and the importance of citizenship in achieving durable solutions for refugees.
The Refugees Act of 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 travelling to seek education or medical treatment.
The sudden enforcement of the refugee encampment policy last year, which was strengthened by the controversial amendment to the Security Act, has had an unpleasant impact on refugees who had established themselves in urban areas.
There is need for a discussion on a workable solution for Kenya’s refugee.
If Somali refugees who have stayed in Kenya for more than 15 years, and are not willing to return home, were to be locally integrated, the country would possibly benefit in a number of ways.
Decongestion of Dadaab refugee camp will be the immediate benefit. This will create space for environmental rehabilitation of severely degraded sites. It will also make it easy for authorities to manage camps and monitor activities across the Kenya-Somalia border.
Locally integrated refugees will become Kenyan citizens and will begin contributing to the economy. They may not necessarily be allocated land but they will constitute a new labour 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.
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 such as Angola, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia have in 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. In 2014, more than 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.
Duke Mwancha is an International Relations scholar and a Communication & Advocacy consultant in Nairobi Kenya