Ethiopia last week passed a law allowing one million refugees to move out of their camps, attend regular schools and to travel and work across the country.
They can also to formally register births, marriages and deaths and have access to financial services such as banking.
These changes assure refugees of a dignified life in the wake of dwindling global support for them as a result of donor fatigue and funding priorities. It is a win-win situation and a smart way of making refugees self-reliant, while also positively contributing to Ethiopia's economy by paying taxes.
Kenya is home to around half a million refugees half of who are from Somalia living in squalid camps in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Majority of the refugees in Kenya have been in the country for over two or three decades.
Imagine if Kenya borrowed a leaf from Ethiopia and allowed those refugees to study, work and invest in the country? How much will they have contributed to the Kenyan economy?
CAT AND MOUSE RACE
There was a brief glitter of hope for Somali refugees in Kenya when the government of President Mwai Kibaki started issuing them with alien cards as a way to curb their influx. It was also a deterrence plan to growing cases of terror attacks. However good the intention was then, it now remains available to the highest bidder and not who is eligible.
We know at some point Kenya had threatened to close down Dadaab refugee camp in the pretext that Somali refugees posed a threat to its security allegedly because al Shabaab operated from there.
Even though the court stopped the government plan, we know the allegation — although some how true to some extent — was blown out of proportion because Somali refugees are themselves victims of al Shabaab terrorism, which has forced many of them to flee their homeland. Criminals are everywhere and so refugees should not be used as a scapegoat.
In most cases, it is the refugees who find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
On the contrary, Somali refugees have turned Dadaab into a booming economy and a major trading centre, thanks to their entrepreneurial skills. Now, if the refugees in Dadaab achieved that fete without much incentive or support from Kenyan authorities, what would they do if Kenya emulated Ethiopia to economically empower them?
I strongly believe they will not disappoint Kenya should it take that bold step. They would be the first to come out and report any al Shabaab elements masquerading amongst them.
February 2017, some 1,176 Makondes living in Kenya's Coast region since Independence were officially recognised as Kenya's 43rd tribe by President Uhuru Kenyatta and are now Kenyan citizens. The Makonde were originally brought by British settlers from Southern Tanzania and Mozambique to work in sisal and sugar plantations.
Now, if the Makondes were finally rewarded, why can’t the Burundian, Rwandese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Congolese and other refugees who have
lived peacefully in Kenya be assimilated and accepted as Kenyans?
These poor people have peacefully lived as stateless refugees in Kenya for two or three generations with little or no hope of returning home because of renewed violence or general instability. They cannot be kept caged forever in the camps, and its a matter of when and not why they should be freed.
The international refugee convention, which Kenya is a signatory, provides refugees to be granted freedom of movement and the right to work. However, the Kenya refugee act does not allow refugees these basic rights and confines them in the camps.
In 2016, MP Agostinho Neto introduced a bill in parliament seeking to allow refugees to work and use land for economic purposes. That bill was twice rejected by the government because of what it described as lack of public participation or consent.
That has left Kenya's management of refugee affairs in limbo. Such a constitutional impasse means refugees have no right whatsoever and illegally live in the country at the discretion of the government. We know what this means. It’s a free pass for
security agents to milk out refugees of their little hard-earned money.
Kenya's highly competitive politics is seen as the biggest obstacle to the refugee problem because there are fears that should refugees be granted citizenship, then it would perhaps be to the advantage of one political camp or a threat to national security.
However, the former can be addressed because in many instances, refugees granted citizenship are actually ineligible to vote. So politicians should relax and soberly address the refugees dilemma.
Whatever the case, this problems need to be legally resolved to spare the refugees the suffering and hopelessness associated with lack of national identity.
In the case of Somali refugees such hopelessness might actually play in the hands of al Shabaab and favour their youth radicalisation because young refugees born in Kenya feel neglected due to lack of education, healthcare, freedom to travel and most importantly lack of job opportunities and could easily be enticed to join those gangs.