Kenya should follow Uganda’s refugee labour example

The current refugee population in Kenya is estimated at 600,000, yet refugees in Kenya at present do not have the legal right to work without paying exorbitant fees to access short-term work permits.

According to Article 6 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees must be exempt from any requirements to obtain work permits if they are unable to meet those requirements due to the hardship that resulted from their forced displacement. By charging this fee for refugees to gain access to work, Kenya is not meeting its international obligations as a signatory to this Convention. For refugees who have settled in urban areas, acquiring work in the informal sector is possible, but in most cases illegal. These refugee workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation and harmful work conditions.

For encamped refugees there is much evidence to suggest that informal economies are thriving, however this is also technically illegal activity. Refugees in camps do not have the legal right to exit the camps without permission that is notoriously hard to gain, and this prevents them from fully engaging in the Kenyan economy. Policies could be improved by understanding the economic value of refugees, both in camps and urban areas, and the potential for these people to give back to their host nation by paying taxes and providing a workforce.

Refugee livelihood issues in Kenya

Kenya’s refugee situation is extremely protracted and it is fair to assume nobody within Kenya is under the illusion that the situation will resolve itself. Kenya’s large population of refugees are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Currently without the right to work, refugees are forced to rely on international aid, usually administered through UNHCR, and become dependent on outsiders in order to merely subsist. The effects of this dependency have been well-researched, and found to lead to negative mental health outcomes and a diminished capacity to enjoy life and to maintain meaningful social interactions.

Research shows that refugees in Kenya engage in one of three livelihood strategies in order to survive:

  • Reliance on international aid
  • Reliance on remittances from family
  • Employment within the informal sector

These are not mutually exclusive of course and many refugees engage in two or three of these strategies at any one time. For refugees settled in urban areas, outside of camps, many who are unable to find informal work in Nairobi rely on others in their communities for support with housing and food. Subsequently, people of mixed descent such as Ethiopian/Eritrean or Hutu/Tutsi are more isolated and less able to cash in on social capital.

Encamped refugees are unable to more meaningfully engage greater levels of trade because the camps are rural, isolated and have limited access to land and markets. With this noted, it is also important to mention that there is literature indicating that Kakuma, Kenya’s second largest camp complex with a population of nearly 180 thousand, is a thriving economic site. There is evidence suggesting that local people living in Turkana County, the region where Kakuma is located, depend on the activity going on within the camp for their own livelihoods. Commercial opportunities have also been utilised between the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps and Nairobi by Somali entrepreneurs.

Refugee work rights in Uganda: a case study

Uganda borders Kenya and hosts many refugees fleeing the same conflicts as it does. Refugee work rights became enshrined in law with the passage of the Ugandan Refugee Act 2006. In Kampala many successful refugee business owners have stimulated the economy, causing job creation and greater taxation revenue for the Ugandan government.

In Uganda, refugees live in allocated settlement areas. They are given small plots of agricultural land to farm. They are able to move out of these areas if they accept that they will not receive any support. This practice could work extremely well in the Kenyan context.

Evidence suggests that with the freedom to engage in the host economy, refugees are able to contribute by creating businesses, hiring employees, paying taxes and providing goods and services to local markets. By having greater personal income, these refugees are also able to then use their purchasing power to further stimulate the economy and the effects of their labour continue to benefit the host community. Locals are also found to benefit from the economic involvement of refugees in Uganda.

This evidence from Uganda shows that Ugandan nationals not only engage in trade practices with refugee entrepreneurs, but they often go out of their way to do so. Refugee business people in Uganda are highly valued as providers of goods and services and in addition they strengthen cross border trade. This adds more choice to the economy, allowing greater diversity and material want satisfaction for Ugandan nationals. In the Kenyan context, fewer nationals are able to engage in the agricultural sector due to the difficulty of rural livelihoods in many areas, unequal distribution of land and widespread urbanisation. Investing in building the human capital of refugees from rural areas who possess the appropriate skill sets that can be adapted to engage in agricultural practices would add value to this sector in Kenya.

Recommendations for the Kenyan system:

Grant all refugees unrestricted work rights: The first step in improving the situation of refugee residents in Kenya is to legalise labour and to remove barriers that refugees currently face to economic participation, in line with Kenya’s international obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This will afford the same legal protections to refugee workers that are available to other workers, both foreign and nationals. These protections include the right to fair pay, reasonable work hours, sick and holiday leave, and freedom from sexual harassment. This would reduce the likelihood that refugee workers will be exploited and harassed by employers within Kenya, improving Kenyan work conditions and the lives of refugees. Restricting the right for refugees to work inhibits the Kenyan economy by failing to utilise a valuable source of human capital: refugees who possess diverse skills and talents who are often talented entrepreneurs.

Allow freedom of movement so that refugees can fully participate in the Kenyan economy: Allow encamped refugees to travel outside of camps for the purposes of work. As in the case of Uganda, allowing refugees to participate in neighbouring economic regions has had positive impacts on both the refugees and local populations. This is already occurring, on a minor level, in Kakuma and should be further encouraged. As reported, most Kenyan nationals in Turkana country already rely on the refugees who inhabit Kakuma for their own livelihoods.

Tax refugees fairly: Ensure that refugee workers are taxed according to the law, as it is applied to Kenyan nationals and other foreign workers. Refugees should be made to pay the same income taxes as Kenyan nationals, allowing them to fairly contribute to the society in which they live. This taxation revenue can then be reinvested into improving services in Kenya such as healthcare, education and infrastructure.

Grant refugees access to legal aid and courts: In order to prevent recurrences of exploitative conditions, refugees should have the same rights to access justice systems and to have employment law fairly applied as all other Kenyan workers. Without fair legal access and representation, it is likely that exploitation will continue and refugees will not be able to participate equally in Kenyan society. The police also require capacity building to ensure that due process is upheld when dealing with refugees who have been arrested, as scapegoating and xenophobia are rife within Kenyan policing.

Support national advocacy campaigns to stem xenophobic reactions: Public opinion is one of the main obstacles to these policies being implemented effectively, and so a significant proportion of resources need to be dedicated to ‘selling’ them to the Kenyan people. As argued by Long, “negative public opinion is by far the most difficult obstacle” to developing more effective policies for refugees. Keeping this in mind, with effective national advocacy and a strong campaign sharing the benefits of refugees’ economic participation and enhanced social integration, this could potentially be mitigated.

It is also important to note that there is no evidence to suggest that a country with work rights for refugees receives larger numbers of refugees that they had previously. Any fears about this occurring are not founded in research, but rather in unfounded xenophobic anxieties that should be set aside for the economic and social prosperity of Kenya.

If the Kenyan government allows refugees to fully participate in the economy, all Kenyan residents will benefit. With greater taxation revenue Kenya would be able to further invest in areas such as health, education and infrastructure. Refugee workers would also provide a source of human capital that is currently much needed in rural areas of Kenya. Kenya should look to its neighbour Uganda for a strong example of how prosperity can flourish when xenophobia is put aside, refugees are recognised as people with valuable skills that can contribute meaningfully to society, and policies are able to utilise this for the economic and social advancement of the entire nation.


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