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Dreams Deterred: opportunities to promote self-reliance for Somali refugee youth in Kenya

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Executive Summary

Somali refugees in Kenya currently find themselves in limbo with only restrictive and impractical options available to them. The majority of these refugees are unable to return to Somalia, despite recent efforts by the Governments of Kenya and Somalia and UNHCR, due to sustained threats to their protection, safety and dignity in what continues to be a fragile post-conflict situation.

Opportunities for third country resettlement are concurrently diminishing, particularly in Europe and the United States of America, due to a sharp decline in refugee resettlement quotas. In Kenya, basic economic and social activity outside refugee camps is prohibited, despite the vast human capital that exists amongst the refugee populations. Consequently, after almost three decades, since 1991, the majority of Somali refugees in Kenya are still entirely dependent on dwindling humanitarian aid without any viable path towards self-reliance.

Since the beginning of the repatriation program in 2014, more than 80,000 Somali refugees have repatriated, however an additional more than 250,000 remain. The sentence should read: The majority of these fled from the southern and central regions of Somalia, which remain highly insecure. One-third are youth aged 18 to 35 years. Thirty percent are youth aged 18 to 35 years. The African Union and UNHCR have declared Somali refugees from southern and central regions of Somalia to have profiles that may bring them within the scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention, requiring continued international refugee protection.

In Kenya, local integration is a seemingly obvious but otherwise neglected solution as refugee demands for greater economic and social rights are often interpreted summarily as demands for citizenship. This research concentrated on refugee self-reliance, as both an outcome and as characteristic of local integration, which does not necessarily imply a demand for citizenship. The UNHCR describes self-reliance “the social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet essential needs (including protection, food, water, shelter, personal safety, health and education) in a sustainable manner and with dignity.”2 The research identified both formal and informal barriers to self-reliance.

Informal barriers stem from weak political will, in spite of untapped public support for inclusive asylum policy. The asylum space in Kenya has been eroded by political rhetoric on counterterrorism and the notion that Somali refugees pose an existential threat to national security. In 2016, the rhetoric metastasized into a formal policy to end Somali refugee hosting, which was shortly after declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Kenya. The court decision quelled the adverse political rhetoric but the negative effects linger. National polling data demonstrate that policy and political rhetoric do not align with public perception; Kenyan citizens are particularly empathetic towards the notion of Somali refugees becoming self-reliant.

Formal barriers stem from the denial of constitutional rights, including the rights to work and freedom of movement, exacerbating labor market exclusion. Contrary to popular perception, the right to work is an integral part of asylum law in Kenya, although realization of this right is frustrated by insurmountable administrative barriers underpinned by weak political will. Somali refugee youth are generally unaware of their right to work or challenged by opaque work permit application procedures. Further, movement restrictions that confine refugees to camps make it impossible to obtain the prerequisite employment offers for work permit application. The Security Laws Amendment Act, which placed all refugees and asylum seekers under forced encampment, is the bane of refugees’ right to work and selfreliance.

Kenya’s development frameworks exclude refugees including Vision 2030, which makes no mention of displacement or refugees. Refugee support interventions depend on international donors whose contribution has declined in recent years resulting in insufficient resources to meet basic needs, let alone promote refugee self-reliance support activities. In 2018 the UN humanitarian appeal, received only US$97 million, down from $340 million in 2017.

Development initiatives to support refugee self-reliance in refugee camps and localities have been piloted at local level by donors and county governments but the needs and economic potential of Somali refugees far exceed current opportunities created at the micro level.

Consequently, material safety (adequate standards of living, access to livelihoods, restoration of housing land and property.) of Somali refugees continues to be severely compromised: unemployment and underemployment rates amongst Somali refugee youth are extremely high compared to the national average. Very low percentages of refugee youth have access to sustainable employment conditions, with incentive work and small business the only options available. While the camps provide economic opportunities for refugees involved in small business, the majority remain impoverished with incomes of only about 35 percent of those in the host communities, who are themselves some of the poorest and most marginalized in the country.

While the removal of barriers to self-reliance may unlock opportunities for some refugees, particularly the educated and those with entrepreneurial capabilities, a significant number will remain marginalized as they lack the capacity to engage in employment or economic activities due to special needs and vulnerabilities. Persons with disabilities are unlikely to benefit without additional support, while women may be disproportionately marginalized owing to cultural practices that disadvantage women. While durable solutions are no less important for persons with special needs and vulnerabilities, this report focuses on refugees who have capacity to become self-reliant.

Self-reliance for Somali refugees can be achieved through integration, fair administrative action, political will, regional cooperation and international responsibility sharing through the following recommendations:

Government of Kenya and UNHCR

a. A national strategic framework on refugee self-reliance that sets out clear guidelines and procedures for the acquisition of work and business permits and provision of mechanisms that are expeditious, efficient, lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.

b. An enhanced refugee registration and management system capable of supporting national surveillance without the need to geographically corral refugees in remote and desolate locations.

c. Inclusion of refugee self-reliance in national development plans as a basis of international responsibility sharing, enabling development partners to understand cost implications and determine the level of investment required to support refugee youth integration.

d. Public participation platforms for refugee and asylum policy to encourage public engagement in defining a national framework for refugee self-reliance and to promote national unity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.

Donors and Development Partners

e. Prioritization by donors of measures to strengthen public institutions and include performance indicators based on refugees’ right to work, freedom of movement and formal labor force participation.

f. Demonstration of solidarity by international partners through investment in national policy reform and formal institution strengthening to support refugee self-reliance beyond designated refugee hosting areas.

Non-Governmental Organizations

g. Fostering of public participation in support of refugee self-reliance by NGOs through identification of appropriate methodology to ensure sustained engagement of civil society policy formulation. This should be linked with enhanced quality of information on refugee self-reliance and its contribution to national development and social cohesion.

h. Partnership building by NGOs with key legislators and policymakers to support their capacity as champions of refugee self-reliance with a focus on the policy and legislative processes linked to the Nairobi Declaration, Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and legislative reforms.