New IRC report: promoting self-reliance for Somali youth living in Kenya


new report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) highlights the challenges young Somali refugees face in becoming economically self-reliant in Kenya while also providing policy solutions that could unlock the potential of these young people. Since 1991, violence, drought, famine, and floods have forced millions of Somalis from their homes – resulting in one of the most the most protracted refugee situations in the world. The majority of these refugees live in Kenya, where a policy of encampment keeps Somalis housed in refugee camps in isolated areas of the country such as Dadaab and Kakuma. Basic economic and social activity outside refugee camps is prohibited, despite the vast human capital that exists amongst the refugee populations. This has led to a generation of tens of thousands of young Somalis, who have spent all or most of their lives in Kenya, excluded from supporting not only themselves,but also Kenya’s development.

Somali refugees in Kenya are trapped in a limbo due to policies that have generated only restrictive and impractical options for them to claim their livelihoods. First, return to Somalia remains difficult and dangerous at best and impossible at worst. Despite recent efforts by the Governments of Kenya and Somalia and by UNHCR, high levels of insecurity and low levels of economic opportunity keep most refugees from returning to Somalia. And for younger refugees, who have spent most or all of their lives in Kenya, repatriation would not be a homecoming but a journey into the unknown in Somalia.

As one Somali refugee in Dadaab explained, “Why would I go to a place I have not ever been, trading a refugee camp in Kenya for an [internally displaced person] IDP camp that has less security and support in Kismayo or Mogadishu? I just want to be able to provide for myself where I have lived for nearly all my life.” – Somali refugee youth in Hagadera 

Second, opportunities for third-country resettlement for Somali refugees are diminishing, particularly in Europe and the United States of America due to a sharp decline in refugee resettlement numbers and the securitization of refugee and migration policies with Somali resettlement from Kenya dropping 78 percent from 2016-17. The US alone has gone from resettling thousands of Somalis annually to dozens. As IRC Regional Vice President Kurt Tjossem explains: “The continued reduction of resettlement by the United States and Europe further exacerbates a fragile situation with increasingly diminishing options for durable solutions for these young refugees who only desire to work and support themselves and their families.”

Integration remains the most practical and desired option for Somali refugees in Kenya. IRC research and interviews with Somali refugee youth has found refugees desire to become self-reliant—to meet their basic needs, such as protection, food, water, shelter, personal safety, health and education, sustainably and with dignity. Young Somali refugees, most of whom consider Kenya home, only want the right and opportunity to move around the country and find work to support their families.

But new IRC research finds there are numerous informal and formal barriers that are keeping Somalis from achieving this dream. “Informal barriers stem from weak political will. Despite public support for inclusive asylum policy, as IRC’s public polling data in Kenya has shown, 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,” says Tjossem. Local integration is also complicated by the fact that refugee demands for greater economic and social rights are often interpreted as demands for citizenship. However, IRC research has found that refugees’ desire for self-reliance does not necessarily imply a demand for citizenship.

Among the formal barriers is the Security Laws Amendment Act, which places all refugees and asylum seekers under forced encampment, undermining refugees’ right to work and become self-reliant. In addition, and contrary to popular perception, refugees’ right to work is already part of asylum law in Kenya, but realization of this right is frustrated by insurmountable administrative barriers underpinned by weak political will to enforce it. Somali refugee youth are generally unaware of their right to work or challenged by opaque work permit application procedures. Confinement to camps makes it impossible for refugees to obtain the prerequisite employment offers for work permit application. Unfortunately, the government has only more strictly enforced the encampment policy in recent years, after a series of terrorist attacks that wrongly conflated refugees with the militant group, Al-Shabaab.

Kenya has agreed to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, opening opportunities for the government to work with partners and change the narrative for Somali refugees.  “Self-reliance for Somali refugees can be achieved through inclusion, fair administrative action, political will, regional cooperation and international responsibility-sharing. The Government of Kenya has committed to such reform as part of the CRRF process,” says IRC Kenya Country Director Mohammed Montassir Hussein. “The IRC is eager to work with the Government of Kenya, UNHCR, IGAD, and the international community to ensure the CRRF process in Kenya supports the inclusion of refugees in development planning, enhances registration and management that would allow for freedom of movement, and engages with Kenyan citizens to provide pathways to self-reliance for refugees. Such reforms would be a win for refugees, a win for Kenya and a win for the internationally community.”

Development initiatives to support refugee self-reliance in refugee camps and surrounding areas 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. International donor interventions to support refugees from the World Bank, UNHCR and other donors should be centered not around encampment, but rather how to support freedom of movement and access to livelihoods for refugees. Kenya should include refugees in development frameworks such as Vision 2030 to ensure that national resources target or flow to refugees and host communities while also enhancing public participation and engagement on refugee issues. Finally, by strengthening refugee registration and management the Kenyan government could ensure the government’s ability to track the whereabouts of refugees while not forcing them into camps and limiting their economic self-reliance and contribution to the Kenyan economy.

The full report and policy recommendations can be found here.


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