The unending tragedy of refugees calls for review of citizenship laws

A section of Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County. [File, Standard]

In November last year, I met members of the Young Parliamentarians Group of Kenya who asked me what, in my view, should to the refugees streaming into Kenya. I flippantly replied that Kenya is blessed, and “to those whom much is given, much is expected”.

Today, I am an elected member of the East African Legislative Assembly and I sit on the Committee for Regional Affairs and Conflict Resolution and the issue of refugees is high on our agenda. Refugees are a serious problem in Kenya and our entire region. As I study the issue with a view to coming up with a common policy, my flippant remark comes back to haunt me.

Majority of refugees are people running from political oppression and wars at home. However, there is an increasing number of economic refugees; those fleeing their countries because there are no jobs. We have grown accustomed to seeing thousands of people cross the Sahara Desert, risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea to look for a new life in Europe. In Kenya today, we are seeing thousands of people who are forced to go to camps in search of food and water because of drought.

This is a new phenomenon of climate change refugees. Officially, we have over 4.5 million people suffering the effects of drought. It is a very serious humanitarian problem with huge economic, political and social implications. We need to urgently review our policies as a region. Kenya has two major refugee camps, Kakuma in Turkana County and Dadaab in Garissa County. Kakuma was established in 1992 when 12,000 young boys and girls called the “Lost boys of Sudan” fled to Kenya following the civil war in South Sudan.

Today, this camp has over 200,000 people. I visited both camps in July last year. They were dry, dusty and had the forlorn, hopeless look of a city without hope. Majority of the people there are dependent on aid for food, water, housing, education and medical services. The living conditions are deplorable and inhuman. It is a depressing life with no hope. There are people who were born there over 20 years ago and have no other place to go.

We do not give them national identity cards and therefore they risk arrest if they venture outside the camp. They cannot work or travel and cannot even open bank accounts. Our generosity in taking them in has also killed them as human beings with dreams. There a few who manage to finally leave for the West. Should we absorb these refugees and allow them to become Kenyan citizens? 

Historically, refugees have enriched the countries they settled in, and tend to outperform the host communities. Schools in Kakuma yield better results than the average Kenyan school because of the sheer desperation of praying for an exit through education. Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin outperformed the average British, both economically and in education. So did Asian and European refugees in America.

Refugees could be an asset, not a liability. If Kenya was to absorb and integrate all its refugees, would this encourage a massive influx into Kenya from our troubled neighbours and can we afford it? Well, we cannot continue with the inhuman treatment refugees endure. East Africans need to come up with well considered policies.

In case you think you are not a refugee, think again. It took a 45-seconds earthquake to render a million people homeless in Turkey and Syria. People who lived in their own homes and had jobs and businesses lost everything and were suddenly left depending on humanitarian services. In 2008 thousands of Kenyans were internally displaced, which is a polite word for internal refugees. It could have been you.