Bearing the brunt of regional conflicts
Somalis, Sudanese, Rwandese, Congolese, Burundians and to a certain extent, Tanzanians, have always found their way to Kenya once their countries prove inhospitable.
But with the country maintaining the image as a bastion of refugees in the Great Lakes region, Kenya is in danger of losing her capacity to handle the influx of refugees if a new legislation that has been in the pipeline for almost a year, is not enacted soon.
Whether it is Kakuma or Dadaab camps, the welfare of refugees continue to deteriorate as new warfronts break up. Both the Kenya government and the international humanitarian agencies, increasingly find it difficult to take care of the growing numbers in accordance with the internationally acceptable standards.
Presently, Kenya is home to over 230,000 refugees, the majority of them based in Kakuma and Dadaab camps in the country's northern frontier, though many more live in urban areas where there numbers is not even clearly defined.
Owing to the fact that the Kenya government lacks adequate resources to feed the refugees, they often rely on donations from international humanitarian agencies. But the Feeding programme run by the World Food Programme often runs into trouble, either due to deteriorating security situation, or lack of enough food donations as other serious conflict fronts open up in various parts of the continent.
Thus, despite access to food being a basic human right to every individual, the global ratio scale of 2,100 calories per day per person is hardly met.
In the words of Ms Jessica Musila, the Assistant Public Relations Officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Kenya, just like most African governments hardly care or give priority to refugees who come to their countries even if they are in a position to make their lives better.
Most refugees, who escape from their war-torn countries in the hope of saving their lives, end up in more desolation. Besides the camps being exposed to raids by bandits who dot the Kenyan northern Frontier, the overcrowded camps can be quite inhospitable.
The Dadaab camp for instance, is characterised by huge sand dunes, violent desert winds, scorching heat by the day and freezing temperatures at night. Women refugees, apart from the pathetic situation in the camps, are exposed to physical abuse and rape, sometimes resulting into unwanted pregnancies and diseases.
Still, the refugees lack free movement outside the camp, even though some would like to mingle with the locals, albeit to introduce some level of normalcy in their lives. But the Kenyan Encampment laws that stipulate that all refugees stay in their designated camps, is strictly reinforced.
This is mainly because refugees have been blamed for the growing crime levels in the country and the rising numbers of small arms which are smuggled through the borders of war-torn nations. It is estimated that about 20,000 refugees are living in the country illegally.
According to Ms Musila, many of those who have professional training do not want to live in the camps because of the stigma associated with refugees.
"Even those who are professionals and highly skilled and held high positions in their home countries are often looked down upon by even illiterate locals," she said, adding that ICRC having identified this problem, has taken the initiative to give support to those with professional skills.
Yet, a government proposal to enact a Refugees' Bill— that would protect refugees in accordance with the international law—has been dragging since February 2003.
In February last year, the government promised to enact a law that would not only make it possible for the government to predict and regulate matters of refugees within and outside the camps, but would also give refugees access land to cultivate their own food as well as engage in petty income-generating activities.
In addition, the somewhat ambitious legislation that ought to have been enacted by October 2003 will enable the government to take over the responsibility of refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Under the new law, refugees will have better status including government and United Nations identity cards, just like in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania that have similar laws.
Among other benefits, according to the vice-president, Moody Awori, who is also in charge of the refugee docket, include enabling refugees who are professionals to work and live outside the camps as a way of decongesting the camps.
But besides the fact that the Bill has taken too long to materialise, the high rate of unemployment affecting the locals is not conducive for refugees to get easy access to employment, since they have to compete with qualified locals who tend to get the priority.
Recently, Awori confessed to the 55th Session of UNHCR in Switzerland that Kenya was among the few developing nations hosting thousands of refugees, but its ability to handle the large influx is limited. "The plan was to move the refugees from the camps to more hospitable places, but the problem is how we can help them look after themselves," said Awori.
Earlier plans to move the refugees from the hostile areas of Northern Kenya to areas with water for cultivation are also yet to materialise due to the delay in legislation. The danger, though, is that some of them are pastoralists, while there are prospects that some of them might feel too comfortable to want to return to their countries even if the war is over.
The UNHCR country representative, George Okoth-Obbo, is on record registering his complaints that the enactment of laws affecting refugees has taken too long in Kenya, thus complicating their predicament.
According to Ms Musila, it is possible for the government to offer refugees some land for cultivation as well as employment opportunities to take care of their needs. She observed that there is a lot of money from NGOs who are engaged in refugee issues and who also happen to have new technologies that could turn the semi-arid areas the refugees live in, into productive land.
In Kenya, UNHCR and ICRC are in the forefront in offering relief food, shelter and medicine. The government is left to provide security in the camps, but which sometimes is inadequate and exposes refugees to attacks by their enemies across the border.
A case in point is the Kakuma camp, where clashes between the Turkana of northern Kenya and Toposa of southern Sudan— over trade in cattle and counterfeit goods from Southern Sudan—is a common feature.
The camp acts as major source of guns and other weapons for local communities, since refugees from southern Sudan often bring in the firearms as they flee from the civil war in their country. The camp has more than 80,000 refugees. Kakuma is also home to refugees from Somalia, DRC, Uganda and Rwanda.
Then there is the terrorist threat in the East African region, which is making it hard for refugees of Muslim background to gain speedy admission into the country. Refugees from Islamic countries spend more time in police cells undergoing scrutiny.
However, the good news is that some developed economies have launched a programme to settle a limited number of refugees in their countries to help ease the congestion and suffering.
In January last year, the United States government airlifted 10,000 Somali refugees of Bantu lineage for permanent settlement in the US, while Canada, and Australia have expressed interest in admitting refugees of Sudanese and Ethiopian origin.
In addition, the Kenya government hopes that about 200,000 refugees will be repatriated back to their countries once the final Somalia and Sudanese peace treaties take effect sometime early next year, though there is danger that some might not be willing to go back because of the harsh realities that awaits them in their countries that have not known peace for decades.