Can Kenya emerge as a role model on refugees?

Its new law – if implemented well – could improve access to education, work and movement for half a million refugees.

South Sudanese volunteers prepare food for refugees at Kalobeyei Primary school within Kalobeyei Settlement outside the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
South Sudanese volunteers prepare food for refugees at Kalobeyei Primary school within Kalobeyei settlement in Turkana county, Kenya [File: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters]

For decades, Kenya’s restrictive refugee policies have denied refugees freedom of movement and the right to work. But there’s change in the air – and it’s exciting.

The Refugee Act, a new law passed late last year, could in fact position the country as a global leader on refugees. Now Kenya needs support to make sure that happens. Doing so not only benefits refugees in the country but the Kenyan economy as a whole – and could signal to the world how refugees’ inclusion can yield positive results for all.

Kenya currently hosts more than half a million registered refugees and asylum seekers. Most have been required to remain in camps for years, have been unable to obtain work permits and other documentation, and have faced limited access to education, vocational training and financial services. For decades, they have relied on humanitarian assistance.

In recent years, many governments around the world – including Kenya – have recognised that refugees can benefit their economies. A study by the World Bank in 2015 and 2016 concluded that Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp has led to an increase in overall average local income and employment in Turkana, the county where the camp is based. Other research has corroborated those economic gains for the local population when refugees are integrated with the host communities.

That’s what the Refugee Act could facilitate. It promises to improve refugee access to a range of rights, including freedom of movement, the right to work, better access to financial services, better access to documentation and education, and the ability to start a business. Recent indications from Kenya indicate that its leadership is ready to work with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to move away from a closed camp model to help refugees become self-reliant.

That is welcome. Until recently, Kenya – like a majority of the world’s refugee-hosting states – limited refugees’ freedom of movement and their right to work. Indeed, with the exception of Uganda, most of Kenya’s neighbours require refugees to live in camps or settlements, which tend to be in remote and economically-challenged areas where host communities are also struggling. These all-too-common models of refugee response perpetuate cycles of poverty and forced reliance on aid that can last for years, even decades. They can also build tensions between refugee and host populations, and leave displaced people in precarity for years on end.

However, as Kenya welcomes large numbers of new Somali refugees fleeing instability and the effects of a changing climate, as well as an ongoing influx of South Sudanese refugees, it needs support from donors and the international community to respond to these challenges.

Kenya already has gains to point to. In 2016, it opened the Kalobeyei settlement, which is administered by the country’s government, the UNHCR, the local Turkana county administration and other partners.

Just 3.5km (2.2 miles) from Kakuma – where refugees cannot formally work and move freely – Kalobeyei encourages self-reliance and integration with the local community. The settlement seeks to help refugees transition away from ongoing humanitarian aid by using cash-based programmes, greater vocational training, and entrepreneurial and agricultural opportunities.

In addition to greater freedom of movement, programmes like the Kakuma Kalobeyei Challenge Fund aim to encourage private-sector investment in areas hosting refugees.

Although research indicates that refugees in all settlements and camps still struggle, refugees in Kalobeyei were found to have better diets and food security, as well as higher levels of interaction with members of the local community. These are notable successes.

Kenya’s policy evolution also comes at a critical time for change in the region, in the form of an expanding East African Community (EAC) that could also be a game changer for refugees.

Refugees from EAC countries – including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and perhaps even Somalia someday), can claim the rights of citizens in any other nation within the bloc. That includes the freedom of movement and the right to work.

Granted, refugees from these countries will need to choose to give up their refugee status and the protections and assistance that go with it – which is not a small decision – should they choose to take up the citizenship. However, if some of the refugees in Kenya chose this path instead of the current encampment policy, it could free up resources to respond to other refugee populations more in need of protection and assistance.

Yet the pressure to respond to fast-paced influxes on multiple borders and a long tradition of treating refugees as security threats and scapegoats for political gain means that rights advocates cannot rest easy. The risk that Kenya could backslide to its restrictive policies of limiting refugee rights remains.

This would be to the detriment of Kenya and the broader region and could also wipe out the gains and investments the country’s government and its international partners have made in recent years. East Africa needs Kenya’s economic and political leadership, its diplomatic clout and its humanitarian and development capabilities now more than ever.

The international community should work with Kenyan authorities – at the national and county levels – to ensure successful implementation of the new law. Humanitarian and development actors must continue to support the Kalobeyei model, drawing on lessons learned and replicating it elsewhere. Donors must pressure Kenya to adopt these types of approaches in line with the new Refugee Law and match that pressure with funding and long-term programmes of support.

We must seize this critical moment in Kenya. It holds the potential for a new direction on refugee rights and solutions – one that could change the way hundreds of thousands of people live and that could affect how the region and the world think about refugees.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.