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Kenya’s bold new Shirika refugee plan is model for future

KENYA is once again at the forefront of refugee policy momentum. Over the last year, much anticipation has built over when and how Kenya’s new Refugee Act of 2022 might be implemented. The law has the potential to increase refugee access to the labour market, freedom of movement, and financial inclusion – all positive steps for Kenya’s refugee and host community populations. With more than 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya and amidst a region in turmoil, this is no small feat.

Earlier this year, the Kenyan government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) unveiled a new plan to turn some of the world’s largest refugee camps into more integrated settlements, with greater opportunities for self-reliance. The multi-year Shirika Plan, which means “coming together” in Swahili, calls for transitioning the sprawling Kakuma and Dadaab Camps, which have hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees for decades, into more open settlements. It has the potential to bring together refugees, host communities, Kenyan authorities, and other actors to change how refugees reside in Kenya. The new plan is built on a model that has already been tried (Kenya’s Kalobeyei Settlement) which, though not without challenges, marked a turning point for Kenya’s openness to refugee integration and self-reliance.

Kenya deserves credit for turning away from a long history of restrictive policies of encampment, which limit refugees’ freedom of movement, right to work and access to other services, protection, and assistance. These policies have resulted in massive camps that have left hundreds of thousands in limbo for decades. Not only does this violate basic rights, but it translates into wasted skills and knowledge from these large refugee populations – skills and knowledge that could benefit their host communities.

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Approaches like the Shirika Plan, then, should be the way of the future: movement away from closed encampments to new urban settlements which favour mobility, freedom of movement, economic inclusion, and refugee participation in Kenya’s development processes. Donors and other actors should therefore encourage Kenya to stay the course and carry out this new plan so that it can serve as a model to the region and to the rest of the world.

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Traditional camp models, which have dominated refugee response in many hosting countries, are based on the notion of displacement being temporary and that solutions to displacement – generally return – will follow thereafter. Time and again, this has not been the reality. Displacement around the world (and most certainly in Kenya and its neighbouring countries) has trended toward protracted timeframes of years and even decades of displacement. Indeed, more than three-quarters of the world’s refugee population live in protracted displacement. Camps like Kakuma and Dadaab house multiple generations of families that have lived most of their lives in the camps. This has translated to lost livelihoods and opportunities for both refugees and the host communities.

The transformation of the camps to integrated refugee settlements in Kenya will be a massive paradigm shift and an example to the world. It leans into a development-oriented approach that focuses on building sustainable services and economic opportunities, including undertaking major investments through development financing and private sector participation. The Shirika Plan, combined with the new Refugee Act, and even other commitments such as the Nairobi Action Plan and the recent Kampala Declaration on Jobs, Livelihood and Self-reliance for Refugees, Returnees and Host Communities in the IGAD Region, could greatly expand the asylum and protection space to enhance shared prosperity through local economic development approaches. It could also lead to improvements in areas where refugees have faced barriers to the labour market, including skills accreditation and legal identification.

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One means to ensure its successful implementation is by creating incentives that tie development funding for the government to policy changes. Donor governments and financing institutions could gear funding toward transforming camp infrastructure from traditional camps to urban settlements. They could also channel funds toward improved refugee status determination (RSD) processes and movement pass provisions. This could be instrumental in clearing the large RSD backlog that remains, which is yet another barrier to many refugees’ economic inclusion.

Kenya is in a position to lead the region in developing and implementing more progressive refugee policy and strategies. Shifting away from restrictive, closed camp models into urban settlements comes with challenges but is also a landmark shift from how refugee response has been done in many countries for decades. Such a model opens the door to fuller economic integration of refugees, better planning and infrastructural development, and the sharing of services. Host communities therefore stand to benefit, as well. If the Shirika Plan can shift Kenya’s policy away from closed encampment, increased freedom of movement, additional opportunities for self-reliance, and greater integration with the local community amidst projects and investments that benefit both populations, Kenya could become a new global leader in refugee response.


Sarah Miller is a senior fellow at Refugees International. David Kitenge is a consultant with UN-Habitat based in Kenya.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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By SARAH MILLER and DAVID KITENGE

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