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What’s Unsaid | Kenya’s new integration plan for refugees: Hope or hype?

‘All these flowery ideas? We are waiting to see.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Victor Nyamori mid-speech, over a radial gradient background. The color at the center is a purplish blue and the color outside is green. On the top right, a bit skewed to the right we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

Last year, the Kenyan government announced a plan that could transform the lives of the more than 600,000 refugees sheltering in the country – ending a three-decade-old policy that has forced them to remain in isolated, overcrowded, and chronically underfunded camps.

Dubbed the Shirika Plan, it aims to turn the camps – some of the largest in the world – into self-reliant communities where refugees can live, work, and set up businesses among their local hosts. But is it living up to the hype?

Victor Nyamori is a researcher and adviser on the Refugee and Migrants Rights Team at Amnesty International, working on legal protection for Kenya’s refugees, including those living in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps.

“We are hoping that with all the challenges that are there, we can see how this can be achieved," he says, joining The New Humanitarian’s Senior Africa Editor Obi Anyadike on the latest What’s Unsaid episode. "But is it the case? It’s worth discussing.”

Reservations have been voiced at the lack of consultation with camp residents and local communities. As Nyamori puts it: “The local community are only engaged at the last stages, just to be told ‘This is the plan. This is how we're going to implement it. And you are required to be with it.’”

Since the launch last June, donors have allocated nearly $200 million. But questions are also increasingly being asked about delays in delivery, and the lack of detail on refugee rights.

“The idea that the camps will open, and refugees will be able to integrate fully into the national economy, with all these flowery ideas? We are waiting to see,” Nyamori says. 

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by staff editors Obi Anyadike and Ali Latifi.

Guest: Victor Nyamori, Researcher and Adviser on Refugee and Migrants Rights, Amnesty International

Subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid

Transcript | Kenya’s new integration plan for refugees: Hope or hype?


Obi Anyadike: 

Today on What's Unsaid: Kenya’s new integration plan for refugees: Hope or hype? 


Last year, Kenya announced a plan that could transform the lives of the more than 600,000 refugees sheltering in the country, ending a three-decade-old policy that has forced refugees to remain in isolated, overcrowded, and chronically underfunded camps.


The Shirika Plan aims to turn Kenya’s refugee camps – some of the largest in the world – into self-reliant communities where refugees can live, work, and set up businesses among their local hosts. Abdullahi Mire, who arrived in Dadaab camp from Somalia in 1991 and was recognized with a UNHCR Nansen Refugee award last year for his work on education, told us that many refugees are optimistic.


Abdullahi Mire: 

The word shirika is a Kiswahili word meaning ‘coming together,’ and when people come together, always we expect good things. It is win-win for everyone: for the refugees, for the host communities, for the host country, for the UN. I saw the document as sweet because it gives things that refugees in Kenya, particularly the Somali refugees, have been longing for, for a long time. So the faster it is implemented, the better. 



But does everyone share his optimism? Donors have allocated nearly 200 million dollars. The program launched in June last year. But since then, questions are increasingly being asked about delays, a lack of detail on refugee rights, and the limited consultation with camp residents and local communities.


Victor Nyamori is a researcher and adviser for Refugee and Migrants Rights at Amnesty International, working on legal protection for Kenya’s refugees. He has both lived and worked in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Who better to ask whether this plan could really change people’s lives? 


This is What's Unsaid, a biweekly podcast by The New Humanitarian, where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world's conflicts and disasters. My name is Obi Anyadike, staff editor at The New Humanitarian. 


On today's episode: Kenya’s new integration plan for refugees: Hope or hype? 


Joining us is Amnesty International’s Victor Nyamori. Victor, thanks for being here today. 


Victor Nyamori:

Thank you very much Obi for the opportunity.



Right, the Shirika Plan is being touted as a major step forward that aims to turn Kenya's sprawling Kakuma and Dadaab camps into more integrated settlements, with great opportunities for self-reliance. That seems something to celebrate, right?



Indeed, Obi. We are coming from a situation where there was no clear plan. And we are very much interested to know where we are going. And so, we have hope. The Shirika Plan has been said to be something that will fundamentally change the operation of refugees in Kenya. And that will obviously look at how to ease the pressure that counties have been having, especially those who are hosting refugees, then look at how refugees and the host community will be able to socially integrate within the community. And we’re also looking at how the refugees themselves, instead of depending [on] food donation and aid from most humanitarian organisations, we are looking at an operation where the government will be giving the services. So we have hope for this operation, and we are hoping that with all the challenges that [are] there, we can see how this can be achieved. But is it the case? It’s worth discussing. 



Indeed. But the impression kind of being given about the Shirika plan is that the gates of the refugee camps will be flung open, and people will be able to settle anywhere in the country, anywhere they want. But that doesn't actually seem to be the case. Can you explain a little bit more about what are the details of the plan?



Obi, you will be shocked to hear that quite a number of people have asked about this Shirika Plan. And it’s still a plan. It’s still not well documented. But, the idea that the camps will open and refugees will be able to integrate fully into the national economy, with all these kind of flowery kind of ideas? We are waiting to see this for now, because we are coming from the aspect where the Kenya signed the international obligations for protection of refugees, the African Union convention of protection for refugees. But interestingly, for the last few years, when the security issues came into play, Kenya became more restrictive in terms of refugee freedom of movement, and have been practising - I would say - a strict and complete policy, where if you are registered, if you arrived into the country, you are taken to the refugee camp direct, and you should be required to stay there. And so, any person who re-enters Kenya, you are directed to go to the camps, and that is where you should be able to receive your documentation. The previous law made it an offence for refugees to leave the camps without permission. We are happy because the civil society and other NGOs participating in the drafting of the 2022 refugee law in Kenya…actually, the new refugee law has no specific provision to make it an offence to leave the camps. But the only restrictive aspect of it is that if you want to leave the camps to other locations, you need to seek approval. Quite a dynamic, you know. We were involved in the development of the law at the initial stages. At certain stages, it leaves the hands of the civil society to other government operations. So, as it stands now, refugees need to seek permission to leave the camps to go to other locations. And if you don't have that particular approval to move, then you are guilty of an offence. So, making, specifically, refugees susceptible for arrest and detention for leaving the camps will limit the idea of socially [and] economically integrating refugees. Because I want people to know that Kenya is a big country. I mean, Dadaab and Kakuma, although the majority of refugees stay there, it's not the only place that refugees can stay. There are quite a number of other locations that might be welcoming to the refugees. These places are near the borders, where the refugees are coming from. If you look at the statistics of people who recently have been arrested, especially along the Dadaab-Nairobi road, it’s quite high, especially for people who are trying to reach Nairobi and other urban centres, because they're trying to find opportunities that are not there within the camps.



Politically, we can understand that the idea of lifting restrictions might be difficult given the economic situation most Kenyans feel that they're struggling with, even though we know that refugees can be a net positive. But the impression that ‘refugees might potentially settle anywhere, take our jobs, take our services,’ do you feel that that's also weighing on the government's mind when it comes to allowing refugees to move freely?



I mean, the Kenyan government is right to take care of its interests, in terms of protecting the nationals within the country. It is right. That is the obligation of the Kenyan government. But it's also important that the Kenyan government respects and protects [the] rights of people and accords them rights that they are eligible to. I'll give you an example: currently, the law allows refugees to apply for a work permit, which is free of charge for refugees. And then [with] that work permit, you should be able to access at least a paying job, a formal paying job. But interestingly, I mean, if you look at the numbers of people who have been able to access this work permit over the years, it’s quite low. I will tell you, for a fact, it cannot reach even 100 for this year - 2024 - for application, and successfully being issued to refugees. What does this mean? It obviously sends refugees to go to the informal economy, which obviously is quite dangerous when you are not properly documented, and you are working while hiding. You fall within the low minimum wage. You're paid peanuts. And you're accessible to abuse in this process. 



Let's go back a little. What has been the relationship between successive Kenyan governments and refugees, especially Somali refugees, who have fled war and drought?



I mean, it has been an interesting journey, I will say, from the time when refugees started being received in Kenya. Right from the ‘90s and into most of the time when there was quite a lot, a huge operation in north and eastern Kenya – specifically, around 2010 and 2011- when there was a huge drought in the north-east and especially the Horn of Africa. At that particular time, Kenya was very welcoming. We saw a lot of people being welcomed into the refugee camps, to be able to receive food, and be recognized as people who were seeking international protection. But the dynamics changed with the increase of security challenges over a period of time. We've had instances where the government has declared that they were going to close Dadaab refugee camp, obviously making claims that refugees were associated with terror-related activities. From a human rights perspective, we have been monitoring this, especially those people who were arrested for terror-related crimes in Kenya. None of them were refugees. So, this was obviously a false situation. We've seen the government having operations, including one that was known as Operation Linda Kenya where they basically rounded up Somali refugees, and some people who were looking like Somalis. Mostly in urban areas. And some of them were deported. Some of them were forcefully returned to the camp. There were quite a number of families that were separated. And I remember families that were separated during that particular time took the government to court to challenge the separation. The court agreed with them, and the government was ordered to pay the families for the cost and anguish they caused in terms of separation. But that's obviously moved over time with the least restriction and changes. We've seen quite a number of advocacy engagements from different actors, especially Amnesty International, UNHCR, and other NGOs that are operating in Kenya, calling on the government to be more welcoming to refugees. Right now, there are discussions of the Shirika Plan, which I feel is a vehicle that we can use for the Kenyan government to push them to continue implementing some of the obligations they signed to.



Some refugees, particularly from Dadaab, have been in the country for 30 years or more. They don't know any other country. As I understand it, the Kenyan constitution says foreign nationals who have been in the country for seven years or more have the right to citizenship or permanent residence at least. But that doesn't seem to apply to refugees. You've been involved in legal petitions that are trying to change the law. Can you tell us a little bit more?



Indeed. The refugee life is not permanent. That's the national standard. That is the idea when all actors develop refugee laws and protection. They mentioned that refugee status should not be permanent. And so, by the end of it, refugees should be able to freely go back to their country, to seek their country's protection, and [if] they feel safe, they're able to go back voluntarily. Then, the second aspect of it is that the refugees can be able to integrate into the country. And the third aspect is terms of resettlement. But I'll go back to the second aspect of it. If you are a foreigner who has stayed in the country for more than seven years, then you can be able to apply for permanent residency into the country. Unfortunately, no refugees can be pointed out to have benefited from this kind of support, because quite a number of refugees came up and mentioned that they already applied for this kind of integration aspect, but none of them were successful. The law does not recognize refugee documents when applying for this access to integration. Two, the law does not recognize the fact that once an asylum seeker accesses the country [and] stays in the country for more than 30 years like you mentioned, like the refugees are also in the camps, [it] does not recognize that period. So, we hope the court will be able to accord rights to these particular refugees; recognize that refugees come into the country, they stay for very long, and if truly the law should be applied as is, then they should be allowed to apply for integration into the country, and be given access to permanent documents. Imagine you being in the country for more than 20 years, with your document you cannot even be able to apply for a SIM card to use for your common communications. Because what? The government does not recognize these documents that refugees have. So, we hope the Shirika Plan will be able to integrate this. 



So, we don't really know exactly what the Shirika initiative is going to look like in practical terms, but kind of the blueprint for it was [the] Integrated Kalobeyei Refugee Settlement where refugees were given land so they could become economically active and self-reliant. But we know that Kalobeyei didn't really work. Refugees are there, living hand-to-mouth. Should we be slightly worried about what could unfold in terms of Shirika?



You are very right. I mean the Kalobeyei idea was quite good, very innovative, in terms of looking at how the refugees can be able to live alongside the host community: they build their own houses, permanent houses actually; have a plot of land that they can be able to work on; and be able to live. But like you've said, I mean, the situation is not as projected as it was. A number of research has documented the situation. [It’s] quite grim for refugees in Kalobeyei Settlement. Even some of them wish that they be returned to Kakuma refugee camp where they previously stayed. And this brings the aspect of proper inclusion of refugees into the process of developing this strategic plan. And that's where I think the government is not fully engaging. I feel there's so much technical to the extent that the local community are only engaged at the last stages, just to be told ‘This is the plan. This is how we're going to implement it. And you are required to be with it.’ If they can be able to learn lessons very well, engagement with refugees in Kalobeyei Settlement will be one aspect of learning, trying to make changes – including how to engage refugees in the process right from the design process – to the extent that they can be able to fully integrate their views [and] their thoughts into the implementation stages. I will say refugees currently have very good agency. I mean, there are very strong researchers who are refugees. There are very strong lawyers in the country. There are strong refugees who manage even organisations. Some are receiving very good funding from other international organisations, and they can even implement to the extent of giving support to the community. These are key players to these discussions of Shirika plan, and discussions on how to implement it. 



The key is implementation. How do we get the Shirika plan to really truly live up to its potential? What are some of the key steps you feel are necessary?



I draw inspiration from the region in terms of what is happening in other countries that Kenya can learn lessons from. Across Uganda, we've seen the refugee agenda being driven by the national government, and specifically the head of state driving the refugee agenda. And the laws, you'll find that each and every department will be able to implement the laws without any challenge. So, from a Kenyan perspective, for me, a proper implementation is that the Shirika Plan [and] the integration of refugees emanate from the right call into the national government. But as it stands, I still feel the Shirika Plan is hanging somewhere with no proper connection into the national government structures. And another aspect to this is, because Kenya practises a county government. We have local governments, which are known as counties. Refugee operation is a national function, [a] national government function, because they manage it, they resource it, they kind of identify the officers to work on it. But refugees are located where local governments manage. I hope the Shirika Plan will be able to cure this, to allow some factions that are in the local government, especially health. Access to health, it's a local government function. So, when the national government comes with its own Shirika Plan, we hope that it will be able to cure the challenges and the gaps that are there between the local government and the national government. 



And that's a dimension as well, as you pointed out, the kind of competition between county governments and the approach of the national government. There’s been some quite sharp exchanges over money for one. You mentioned the fact that policy needs to be properly integrated. How do you bring them on board? How does everybody sing off the same hymn sheet?



Local government plays a key role because they are on the ground. They tax refugees in terms of setting up business operations. They formally and informally get revenues from the refugee community. And I feel it is important [that] the Department of Refugee Services, supported by UNHCR and other donors, should be able to ensure that this local government official - the local government - are all speaking the same language. It might cost a lot. But you better have concurrence of ideas from the initial stages, than wasting millions of money, having a national government kind of a plan that is not supported by the local government. I mean, there have been recent calls by area Members of Parliament from Dadaab who mentioned that they were not involved in these Shirika Plan discussions. Because they represent a huge community who are hosting refugees, and they feel the brunt when they're hosting refugees. So, we hope they can be included at the early stages, so when the Shirika Plan is formally and finally brought out to the public, it will be something that everybody buys in. The refugee community buys it. The host community buys it. The local government is able to buy it. And the national government is just a driving force for this to work.



Taking this a step further, we've heard from some refugees who feel nervous to voice any criticism, partly because of that long history between the government and particularly Dadaab refugees. Is that a problem that some refugees feel perhaps intimidated or somehow unwelcome to voice their real, truthful take on this plan?



Thank you Obi for bringing that up. I'm just finalising a project that I've just been running in Kakuma that talks of LGBTI refugees in Kakuma. I've been so much inspired by the kind of resilience and the strength of the advocacy, of the activism, in terms of fighting for the rights of the refugees themselves. But interestingly, we've documented cases where those who are very active – including on social media, engagement with donors, engagement with other actors, – they become persons of target once they go back to the camp. We've had a situation where the Commissioner of Refugee Affairs revoked the refugee status over the individual who was very active in terms of campaigning for changes on issues, on refugee issues within the camps. So this shows you how the challenges that are there, that refugees face – especially the human rights defenders who speak on issues that happen in the camps, who can talk and activate for issues that change. It tells you the precarious challenges they are facing when they speak. And they can be cited for that and can be known. We've also documented cases where some of them were actually arrested after community engagement, because they were seen to be advocating for their rights and were very loud on these issues. So I agree with you. I mean, there are quite a number of refugees who might be feeling not safe, especially those who are speaking on issues that touch on the community. And where can they go for a solution? Like I mentioned, we've documented cases where the police have been able to arrest and detain people who are seen to be speaking actively on issues of the community. So, the refugees cannot run to the police to record the risk of fears they are having. I mean, we have seen quite a number of small NGOs that are coming up run by refugees, whom we hope we can be able to support just to be able to continue engagement in terms of activism on issues that touch on the refugees. So, that’s true that there is risk to this engagement



Victor, thank you so much for joining us.



Thank you Obi for the opportunity. Thank you.



Victor Nyamori is a researcher and adviser on the Refugee and Migrant Rights Team at Amnesty International. He has lived and worked in Dadaab and Kakuma camps.


Do visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on issues and policies affecting refugees and humanitarian aid. 


And please, let us know what people are afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Send us an email to [email protected]


Also, subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths, with new episodes every other week. 


This episode is produced and edited by Freddie Boswell, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson. And hosted by me, Obi Anyadike.

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