Blog post written by Dr Cory Rodgers (Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford) who is presenting on a  panel entitled ‘Regional Trends in the Pursuit of Durable Solutions in eastern Africa’ at the upcoming RLI 4th Annual Conference
The conference 
draft programme is available online and registration for the event is now open.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

The current outlook for refugees in Kenya displays a perplexing duality.

On the one hand, the government has declared refugees a threat to national security and warns that refugee camps may serve as ‘launch pads’ for attacks by the al-Shabaab militia. A 2017 ruling by the High Court blocked efforts to terminate the Dadaab camps and repatriate many of the inhabitants to Somalia. But earlier this year, the government again raised the threat of camp closure and expulsion.

At the sametime, Kenya has made substantial pledges to becomea more open and inclusive hostcountry. In the 2016 Leaders’ Summit in New York, Kenya pledged toundertake“several self-reliance and inclusion measures for refugees”, which are now being implemented under the CRRF. Most substantially, the government supported the construction of the Kalobeyei refugee settlement, which has been built just west of the Kakuma campand billed as an innovative model of aid that promotes self-reliance and can benefit refugees and citizens alike.

Photo 1. A model shelter on display in Kalobeyei Settlement.

So, is Kenya shirking its international responsibility to refugees, or embracing a more inclusive approach to refugee protection? My paper at the Refugee Law Initiative’s Fourth Annual Conference will explore this question through a critical analysis of public narratives about refugees in Kenya and their role in UNHCR’s efforts to negotiate durable solutions.

Post-colonial histories of refugee reception in Africa generally describe the rise and fall of a ‘golden age’ of asylum. According to Professor Bonaventure Rutinwa of the University of Dar es Salaam, this era came to a close with the end of solidarity-generating independence movements and the rise of democracy-fuelled contestations over citizenship.

Since then, most countries’ receptivity to asylum seekers has followed the tide of public opinion toward refugees, which has varied according to the perceived economic impact on host populations, the presence or absence of security concerns, and the degree of ethnic, linguistic and religious affinities between groups. Refugees in one context are met with tolerance and hospitality; in another they face xenophobia and violence.

But in Kenya, any attempt to gauge the trajectory of asylum policies is confounded by the co-existence of opposing public narratives. In one, the country is opening its doors to refugees and attempting to implement new models of aid that can benefit both refugees and their host communities. In the other, the country is closing its doors for fear that refugee populations harbour religious extremists and terror cells.

To be clear, this is not simply a matter of opposing political arguments, which are typical of any democratic system. Different actors have different interests. The UNHCR and its partners tend to focus on the technical and financial aspects of providing protection; advocacy groups like Kituo cha Sheria emphasise Kenya’s human rights obligations; the national government generally turns to the security discourse over the al-Shabaab threat.

What is odd in Kenya is not that there are disagreements or debates about refugee policies, but that the public narratives about refugees don’t seem to recognise this.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…

Usually, public narratives traverse multiple discourses: in the US, for example, mayors in cities like San Francisco refused to implement Trump’s Executive Order 13769 aka ‘the Muslim Ban’ despite threats that their federal funding would be cut. As such, this ‘sanctuary city’ narrative recognises the encounter between progressive discourses on human rights/dignity and nationalist discourses about cultural identity/security. President Trump countered this narrative with an alternative – and clearly fictional– account, in which sanctuary cities were being over-run by criminal elements within the immigrant populations that they were protecting. Despite the new plot-line and the reversal of antagonists and protagonists, Trump’s narrative still accounted for the clash between human rights and security concerns.

But the narratives in Kenya don’t even acknowledge the disagreements. One narrative tells of a country willing to implement an innovative self-reliance model at a newly constructed refugee settlement. The other tells of a country tired of its refugee burden and attempting to close down existing camps. The resulting image is not of two opposing sides, but of two different Kenyas.

Upon closer analysis, this striking dissonance is resolved spatially, in that the security narrative remains fixated on Dadaab, while the self-reliance narrative has focused on Kakuma/Kalobeyei.

These are two of the most well-known refugee camps in Africa, and perhaps the world. With an estimated 480,000 residents in 2011, Dadaab was long recognised as the largest camp on the continent (It is actually a complex of four camps. Following the onset of civil conflict in South Sudan, it was surpassed by Bidi Bidi in northern Uganda). Aside from its profile as a security concern in Kenya, Dadaab was the focus of Ben Rawlence’s award-winning non-fiction City of Thorns.

Kakuma, meanwhile, is known as one of the most (over-)researched refugee camps in the world. The ease of access and relative safety of the camp during daylight hours has made it an attractive destination for researchers, and a quick internet search pulls up dozens of masters and doctoral dissertations focused on Kakuma. Since 2000, there have been at least seven Kakuma-based studies on the issue of refugee-host relations alone. The UNHCR has even published a visitors’ guide to the camp.

One of the biggest differences is that the population of Dadaab is predominantly constituted by people displaced from Somalia, whereas Kakuma’s population is more diverse. Somalis have long been the target of government security operations. Police sweeps carried out under programmes such as Usalama Watch have seen Somalis removed from Nairobi, some deported to Somalia and others sent to the Dadaab camps.

Now, in the wake of the New York Declaration and the Global Refugee Compact, the UNHCR is promoting its self-reliance agenda with renewed enthusiasm, and it has put Kakuma and Kalobeyei in centre focus. But Dadaab and the broader Somali refugee demographic have been left out of the picture. This is despite the entrepreneurial achievements and economic investments of country’s Somali networks, most impressively on display in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood, as well as the street colloquially known as the Mogadishu Market in the Kakuma camp.

Photo 2. The Mogadishu Market in Kakuma.

In my paper, I draw upon both fieldwork and document analysis to describe the dissociation of the security and self-reliance narratives in Kenya, which have been anchored spatially in Dadaab and Kakuma/Kalobeyei, respectively. Although UNHCR is not responsible for the negative depiction of Somalis in Kenya, which has roots in colonial history, in their effort to maintain optimism about the self-reliance model agenda and the CRRF they have tacitly supported dual narratives that keep Kakuma and Kalobeyei clear of Dadaab’s reputation.

It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Whether the outcomes of self-reliance policies will live up to expectations remains an open question. But the potential of self-reliance has built enthusiasm in places like Turkana County, and UNHCR has failed to use that narrative to counter xenophobia toward Somalis on the national stage. Unless it does, we will be left with two Kenyas: one in which Somalis are vilified, and one in which they don’t seem to exist.

There have been some indications of a shift. UNHCR and ILO recently commissioned a study titled ‘Doing Business in Dadaab’, results of which were published just this January. The report parallels the IFC’s ‘Kakuma as a Marketplace’ study from the previous year, which assessed private sector opportunities in Kakuma and contributed to the Kakuma-centric self-reliance narrative about refugees in Kenya. Perhaps more significantly, recent regional agreements have focused on the inclusion of Somalis in the self-reliance agenda, including the Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees.

As is clear from the rise of far-right movements around the world, those advocating for legal changes to expand political rights for refugees must engage with the prevailing public narratives that shape “public” opinion. How might the ‘narrative work’ of UNHCR and other agencies promote or hinder the expansion of refugee rights? Or, in what ways might it reinforce stereotypes and entrench the exclusion of already marginalised groups?

My case study will be presented as part of a panel convened by RLI’s Nicholas Maple, which is titled ‘Regional Trends in the Pursuit of Durable Solutions in eastern Africa’, which will feature Dr Lucy Hovil from the International Refugee Rights Initiative, Sylvester Chapotera from UNHCR Malawi, and Alexander Ray from SOAS. Through a roundtable-style discussion with attendees, I hope that we can consider how the prevailing refugee regime in eastern Africa – accustomed as it is to engaging in ‘narrative work’ at the international and national levels, which are often kept separate – will engage the growing body of regional policy and discourse. This is especially important given the recent flurry of regional agreements, including IGAD’s Kampala Declaration on Jobs, Livelihoods and Self-Reliance, the regional application of the CRRF for Somalia, and the World Banks’s Development Response to Displacement Impacts Project (DRDIP) in the Horn of Africa.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

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