Refugees in Kenya will now be able to take part in economic and social activities, including access to the labour market and business opportunities.
This is after President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Refugees Act of 2019 aimed at integrating refugees into society.
The government will be required to facilitate refugees’ access to legal documents needed for them to partake in these activities. While refugees have always had access to basic rights in Kenya, it’s been difficult for them to get documentation that would enable them to integrate into local communities. It has largely forced them to live in camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab, two of the largest refugee camps in Kenya.
According to the new law, refugees will be entitled to shared use of social amenities such as schools and hospitals.
The national and county governments will also be required to take into consideration refugee concerns when making environment and sustainability plans.
Limited access to opportunities
Previously, refugees in Kenya could only be perceived to be integrated if they acquired Kenyan citizenship through naturalization. The only other way was to enjoy a legal status that provides for effective access to socio-economic and civil fundamental rights.
The Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) in 2019 lamented that refugees and asylum seekers had limited opportunities for economic inclusion in Kenya. They said that the refugee status determination (RSD) process for acquiring a refugee certificate was too lengthy.
“How can I access a work permit when the law states that I require a refugee certificate but this certificate takes five years to get? What will I do in the meantime?” one of the refugee representatives at an RCK forum asked.
They also took issue with the required process to access the work permit. Refugees are required to first obtain a letter of employment from an employer before being issued with a work permit. But most employers are hesitant to give them an offer letter without a work permit.
“Some of these prospective employers are afraid to give us jobs while there are Kenyans that can take up those positions. Moreover the employers often insist that the refugees provide proof that they can work in Kenya legally before issuing an employment letter,” another refugee participant said.
Establishment of new administrative units
The new law established three administrative units that will be charged with looking into refugee matters. The institutions are the Department of Refugee Services, Commissioner for Refugee Affairs, Refugee Advisory Committee, and Refugee Status Appeals Committee.
The Department of Refugee Services will be the main administrative body. Its duties will be to coordinate all refugee and asylum seeker programs and activities in Kenya and handle refugee protection and assistance besides administrative matters.
The Commissioner of Refugees will be tasked with ensuring that refugees are fully integrated into host communities. The commissioner will be the chair of the Refugee Advisory Committee and will process refugee applications in addition to maintaining a register of all refugees in Kenya.
Besides the Commissioner, the Advisory Committee will also consist of Principal Secretaries (PS) from the ministry responsible for refugee affairs as well as the ministries of foreign affairs, health, devolution, education and finance. The Attorney General, Director of the Department of Immigration, Inspector-General, and a representative from the Council of Governors will also form part of the committee.
They will advise the cabinet secretary for refugee affairs on all matters relating to refugees.
The Refugee Status Appeals Committee will handle appeals relating to the rejection of application for refugees status or the termination of status.
Kenya-UN refugee deal
The Kenyan government signed a deal with the United Nations (UN) to gradually empty refugee camps and shut them down from June 2022.
Kenya had previously disagreed with the UN on closure of the camps as the government linked some refugees to terrorism and smuggling. But they agreed that refugees could either be integrated, taken to a third country or voluntarily repatriated.
However, there had been no clear law to guide what form the integration of refugees should take.
The new law hopes that international organizations such as the UN High Commissioner will pay special attention to the plight of women, children and persons with disabilities.