Helping refugees find a home away from home

There is a rethink from simply hosting to empowering and integrating them

In Summary

• The number of protracted displacement situations is increasing worldwide

• A new journey to socioeconomic inclusion of refugees is underway in Kenya

A woman fetches water at Ifo Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Garissa county
A woman fetches water at Ifo Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Garissa county

A home symbolises family, safety and love. There is nothing more painful than being forcibly uprooted from one's home, losing a home and fleeing in search of safety, respect and dignity, whether in one's own country or across borders.

It is unimaginable that 120 million people have so far been forcibly displaced in 2024, with about 43.4 million becoming refugees and others in need of international protection outside the countries they call home.

Thus, they had to look for a new home in a new environment, often in different social, cultural and political set-ups. It is painful, and one wonders what has become of humanity.

The number of protracted displacement situations is increasing, and it is therefore not by coincidence that this year’s World Refugee Day has ‘For a world where refugees are welcome’ as its theme. This complements the ‘Hope away from Home’ theme of 2023.

This is all about giving the displaced a chance to feel at home and make home in the areas where they have been displaced and at instances living most of their life. An opportunity to restart their lives and to live in dignity with access to basic services, opportunities and protection from fear and discrimination is the ‘home’ they aspire for. 

Kenya has graciously (and generously) been welcoming refugees from neighbouring countries for decades.

The thinking and nature of refugee management has been of a temporary nature; one of care and maintenance in camps with the assumption that the refugees would ‘soon’ return to their countries of origin when peace and security prevail.

However, this has quite often become a dream unrealised, exemplified by the protracted refugee situation.

The symbolic relationship between refugees and the host community at the busy market in Hagadera Camp, Garissa county
The symbolic relationship between refugees and the host community at the busy market in Hagadera Camp, Garissa county
The assumption that refugees would ‘soon’ return to their countries of origin when peace and security prevail has often been a dream unrealised, as exemplified by their protracted stay


As of May 2024, there were 774,370 refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, most from Somalia and South Sudan, followed by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia.

These refugees and asylum seekers reside in refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma, with some in urban areas like Nairobi and Mombasa.

The protracted refugee situation in Kenya caused a rethink, or rather a reboot, on how to manage refugee affairs and make them a productive part of a country’s socioeconomic development.

It is with the leadership and foresight of the government of Kenya, with the support of UNHCR and other humanitarian and development stakeholders, that we have started on a new journey, building on the years of efforts to address the problem.

The destination is the full empowerment of refugees in Kenya, enhancing the opportunity for them to feel at home and make Kenya their home. 

The ‘Shirika Plan’, one of the pioneering approaches globally on inclusion, lays out the transition from encampment, care and maintenance to integrated settlements, social and economic inclusion.

It outlines the inclusion of refugees in Kenya’s national socioeconomic fabric. This embodies the commitment by the Government of Kenya to create an enabling environment where refugees and members of the host communities, and Kenyan citizens in general, can interact socioeconomically and thrive, each viewing the other as value-adding members of the shared social and economic space. 

The framework aligns with the Garissa Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan in Dadaab and the Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan in Kakuma.

Cognisant of the fact that the refugee camps are situated in the least developed areas of the country, it is imperative that the transition in refugee management be intertwined with economic and infrastructure development of these areas, bringing opportunities closer and ensuring that no one is left behind. If successfully done, this is a win-win situation for both the host communities and refugees.

Until now, this kind of approach has been happening through access to services, whereby the services meant for refugees, like health, education and water, are also accessible to members of the host communities.

The game changer is working and partnering with different stakeholders, including developmental partners, international financial institutions, private investors, the diaspora, communities and refugees, to bring development to these areas and services closer to the delivery points. 

The shift from maintenance of refugees in camps to staying with communities, coupled with social and economic inclusion of refugees, is a game changer and takes courage.

This basically implies thinking humanitarian but acting developmental, ensuring protection of rights for refugees, leading to economic and structural development of those areas that are hosting refugees. 

There are strong and practical indications that the aspect of socioeconomic inclusion is gaining momentum in the Dadaab Refugee Complex and the host community.

Already, there are many refugees whose businesses employ members of the host communities and vice versa. Many Kenyan national and local companies and organisations, particularly NGOs, are employing refugees. There are hospitals and schools that similarly serve members from both communities.

Take Abdikadir Mohamed* (not his real name), 28, for instance. Abdikadir was born and raised in Dadaab and educated in Nakuru. He clearly states that he has no intention of ever going back to Somalia, as Dadaab is home for him.

He now runs a small farming and trading business in Dagahaley Camp with his wife. Whereas the questions and dilemmas of the likes of Abdikadir will not be entirely answered as there are no truly conclusive answers relating to identity and what ‘home’ relates to there is comfort in knowing that these shall be grappled with in the context of Shirika Plan, which espouses socioeconomic inclusion principles anchored in Kenyan government policies, practice and law, as it is progressively implemented.

UNHCR, under the leadership of High Commissioner Filippo Grandi, started the journey of transformation to make the organisation fit for purpose, agile and responsive to the needs and aspirations of displaced people through internal transformation to be more accountable, effective, efficient and transparent.

Therefore, UNHCR, in partnership with various stakeholders, is strengthening its catalytic role in bringing development, social and economic inclusion and empowerment to the areas hosting refugees, besides responding to emergencies.  

William Ejalu is the UNHCR Dadaab head of sub-office, while Joseph Masika is the FilmAid Kenya deputy director-operations and Dadaab Field Office area manager. This article is written with contribution from UNHCR and FilmAid Kenya.

William Ejalu and Joseph Masika
William Ejalu and Joseph Masika

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