Nothing stops refugees from excelling if we support them

The Refugees Bill 2019 should be developed and enacted in line with the aspirations of Kenyans to protect and welcome refugees.

Last week’s opinion on the cruelty of American anti-asylum laws provoked considerable interest and debate. With rumours of Congolese refugee demonstration in Nairobi, the teargassing of refugees in Cape Town and a new Refugee Bill going through our National Assembly, perhaps it is time also to look at Kenya’s own treatment of refugees and migrants. 

If all the 68.5 million displaced people in the world formed their own country, they would be the twenty-first most populous nation after Thailand. Roughly a third of this refugee nation would be under the age of 18 and African. They would have fled South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic to seek refuge and asylum among their Ugandan, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Congolese and Kenyan neighbours. Ironically, the East and Central African region are both a refugee-producing and refugee-hosting region. 

Host-refugee tensions are not confined to this region alone. This week, South African police used tear-gas and rubber bullets on at least 100 migrant families demanding resettlement. Thousands of refugees have grown impatient with living in limbo. Caught between the scissors of long processing backlogs, asylum rejections and rising xenophobia, they staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR offices in Cape Town.

Given Kenya’s twenty-year-old history as a sanctuary country, we have also experienced refugee protests. The protection we provide has not come without significant challenges. A 2014 government directive effectively criminalised refugees unofficially living outside of designated camps. Our biggest camp Dadaab itself would have been forcibly closed two years ago if Justice Mativo had not declared the government’s intention unconstitutional and an act of excessive collective punishment.

In March, Amnesty International Kenya challenged new plans to close Dadaab camp in August. Thankfully, this intention was abandoned. There are now active steps towards refugee inclusion beyond Garissa and Turkana. This progressive thinking around inclusion is not only important for the 468,000 refugees in Kenya. Given the racist profiling, essential services denial, arbitrary detention, and deportation of refugees in Europe and America, it is this thinking that may demonstrate Kenya’s international leadership.

In the coming weeks, the National Assembly will debate a new Refugee Bill. The Bill must signal an end to our strict encampment policy and guide the social-economic inclusion of refugees in future. Historically, refugee camps have been a common practice for many governments. They facilitate the management of security and social services and let’s be honest, offer a visible way to raise donor funding.

We must elevate what we have learned over the last two decades. Camps have grown into middle size towns dependent on international humanitarian assistance that is shrinking. By restricting movement, we have denied refugees the opportunity to be productive and independent. We have also exposed them to the dangers of unnatural and dangerous environments that breed sexual violence and radicalisation.

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Public opinion is on our side. According to the 2016 International Refugee Welcome Index, over 62 per cent of the Kenyan population wants the government to do more to help our neighbours escape violence. Seventy-two per cent of Kenyans would personally accept people fleeing from war or persecution into their neighborhood. Turkana County government has successfully piloted this approach and it is working well.

The Refugees Bill 2019 should be developed and enacted in line with the aspirations of Kenyans to protect and welcome refugees. It must expand support to include housing, legal education, and protection. As Uganda, we should start issuing work permits. The proposed Commissioner for Refugees and Refugee Advisory Committee must work more closely with all 47 County Governments and civic organisations. Our MPs must drop the vague reference to “public morality” as grounds to forcibly deport refugees. These measures would greatly expand the capacity of refugees to be self-sufficient and reduce the cost of being a sanctuary country.

Some famous people in the world were refugees. Jesus Christ fled the tyranny of King Herold in the holy land. It was the Russian refugee Michael Marks who founded one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets Marks and Spencers. US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was a Dadaab refugee. Actor Jackie Chan fled the Hong Kong Triad for America. Bob Marley fled to Miami to recover from gun violence in Jamaica. Like reggae, nothing stops refugees. We have to move to a framework of support and the Bill could give us this.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]

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Refugees Bill 2019refugeeDadaabAmnesty International