Refugees are often depicted as economic burdens on the communities where they have found safety, and on the international aid system. This overlooks the fact that 55% of refugees live in countries where their right to work and fully participate in society is restricted.
This suppression of refugees’ economic freedom and potential forces many of us into a state of dependency, turning the narrative of economic burden into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, in Kenya, where I have lived as a refugee for the past eight years, people like me have historically had neither freedom of movement nor the right to work.
Most of the more than half a million refugees in Kenya – mainly from Somalia and nearby South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Burundi – have been confined to two designated camps: Kakuma and Dadaab. They’ve had little choice but to depend on dwindling amounts of international aid and have been left with little hope for a better future.
“Many refugees are brimming with creative ideas, energy, and a desire to be active economic agents if only we are given the chance.”
Those – like me – who have chosen to live outside the camps struggle to obtain legal residency and often can only find work on the margins of the economy.
But this doesn’t have to be the case.
In an important step forward, in February 2022, a new refugee law came into effect in Kenya that gives some refugees the right to work, start businesses, and have their professional qualifications recognised. But more needs to be done to fulfil its promise.
My own experiences and my work with urban refugee entrepreneurs in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, have shown me that a different reality is possible: Many refugees are brimming with creative ideas, energy, and a desire to be active economic agents – able to provide for ourselves while contributing to our host country’s economy – if only we are given the chance.
‘A deliberate way of trying to discourage refugees’
Over the past eight years, I faced many difficulties as a refugee in Kenya. I was around 14 years old when I left my hometown of Fangak, South Sudan, in 2008. The school there had been damaged in fighting during the long war for South Sudan’s independence. Many of the teachers had either left to search for places where they would have more opportunities or had lost their motivation to continue teaching. I wanted to go somewhere where I would be safe and could get a good education.
That desire led me to leave home at a young age, first to Uganda, where I lived for six years, and then, in 2014, to Kenya. When I arrived in Kenya, I was told – like all refugees – that I had to reside in the camps. But I wanted to stay in Nairobi, where I hoped I’d be able to continue my education. Staying in Nairobi, however, meant being undocumented and regularly facing harassment from police officers who target and harass refugees for bribes.
I soon found out that my hope of having better access to education in Nairobi was naive. As a refugee – especially an undocumented one – I didn’t have access to public education. I thought that maybe if I registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, the process of enrolling in school would be easier. I submitted an application in 2015, but it took nearly five years for me to be granted refugee status.
“The vast majority of refugees in Kenya continue to live in camps where their potential is stifled, while only 16% live in urban areas.”
While I waited, I managed to find a private school that allowed me to complete the diploma course I needed to be able to attend university. But I also needed documentation I didn’t have. To enrol, I had to figure out how to apply for a South Sudanese passport even though South Sudan wasn’t an independent country at the time I left.
All of these complications, I believe, were a deliberate way of trying to discourage refugees from coming to Kenya. And they were just a small sample of the barriers refugees face in day-to-day life. I eventually figured out how to navigate them and graduated from university. But when I paused to look around, there were almost no other refugees in the school or university I attended because the Kenyan system has made it exceedingly difficult for people like me to fully participate in society.
‘Despite the odds’
The same types of obstacles that make it difficult for refugees to get an education in Kenya also prevent them from participating in the formal economy. But the fact that Kenya’s laws and bureaucracy have historically excluded refugees from the labour market does not mean that refugees do not have economic potential.
During a Young African Leaders Initiative fellowship in 2018, I was introduced to the concept of social entrepreneurship. I was inspired by the idea that refugees could take control of their own destinies by running businesses that earned them money while also allowing them to support other people in their communities. I soon co-founded an organisation called Tedi Africa to train refugees on how to start and run businesses, and on how to navigate the complicated legal and regulatory maze that makes it so difficult for refugees to participate in Kenya’s economy.
Through Tedi, I have worked with South Sudanese youth and women in low-income and slum areas of Nairobi. I have been consistently impressed by their incredible resilience and passion to better themselves. Despite the odds, these refugee entrepreneurs do everything from running restaurants to setting up mobile money transfer services. Their businesses serve Kenyan and refugee customers alike, and provide economic benefit to the entire surrounding community.
‘Make sure that changes made on paper are fully applied’
In recent years, Kenya has taken significant initial steps towards recognising the economic potential of refugees like the ones I’ve worked with, and to start reversing the cycle of dependency that perpetuates the false idea that refugees are an economic burden.
The new refugee law allows refugees from the East African Community (EAC) – a regional intergovernmental organisation consisting of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda – to give up their refugee status in exchange for residence rights as EAC citizens, which would allow them to work and live anywhere in the country.
This is an incredibly positive step forward. But nearly a year later, the vast majority of refugees in Kenya – including Somalis who are not part of the EAC and account for around 56% of all refugees in the country – continue to live in camps where their potential is stifled, while only 16% live in urban areas.
To fulfil the promise of the new refugee law, the Kenyan government needs to make sure that changes made on paper are fully applied. This would be an important step towards showing other world leaders – and their citizens – that refugees can flourish if given the opportunities to help themselves and contribute to their host societies. Only then, can we write a new narrative that acknowledges refugees' true potential to be active economic agents.
Edited by Moulid Hujale and Eric Reidy.