The United Nations High Commission for Refugees marked the international day for refugees with a ‘Refugee Forum’ panel discussion and award presentation ceremony at the Nairobi National Museum on June 13.
Under the national theme ‘Include All, Empower All’ the event brought together refugees and other stakeholders in the humanitarian world with a view of finding permanent solutions to the burgeoning refugee crisis. The event was organized in conjunction with, among others, Windle Kenya, the Association of Volunteers in International Service AVSI, HIAS- Kenya, Know Your World Initiative (KYWI), The Refugee Affairs Consortium, RAS and the Refugee Affairs Secretariat under the Ministry of Interior.
Forming the panel was the Commissioner of Refugees Affairs Secretariat Mr. Kodeck Makori, UNHCR assistant representative, Ivana Unluova, programme manager-European Trust Fund for Africa, Natalie Mitchelle Bennett, CEO Africa Policy Institute Prof Peter Kagwanja, senior operations officer at the International Finance Corporation IFC, Luba Shara as well as Ms Tabisha Esperance representing refugees living in Kenya.
The discussion unearthed a number of important issues. Foremost, was a general consensus that a resolution of the refugee problem required a shift policy from alienation and repatriation towards integration. According to Ms Tabisha Esperance, while efforts until now have been geared towards voluntary repatriation, most refugees are not keen on returning to their countries of origin due to the relative good life they have become accustomed to in the host countries compared to their own. While less than ideal, Kenya guaranteed social amenities such as schools and hospitals and provided opportunities, which are harder to come by in countries ravaged by war. Although a refugee and without formal training, Esparance had gone on to establish herself as a respected designer at the Kakuma Refugee settlement, efforts which attracted the support of the lead fashion and design brand Kiko Romeo.
From dependents to contributors
Speaker after speaker, the panelists emphasized the need to integrate refugees into the host community by minimizing restrictions on movement and providing them with equal opportunity for self-empowerment. For Prof Kagwanja, this was the only way through which refugees would cross over from being dependents to contributing to the economy of the country through skill, labour and taxation. In doing so, he suggested that governments in the region sign a declaration of equality of east African citizens thereby eliminating any distinctions between a refugee and a legitimate citizen.
The international community follows every refugee with resources. According to Ivana Unluova, if refugees were to be integrated into the host community, humanitarian spending targeting refugees would equally benefit the host community thereby reducing the government’s development expenditure. The alternative, concentrating resources on refugee centers, is not only costly but also wasteful in that such amenities remain unused upon repatriation.
Yet even more illuminating was the EU’s suggestion of a shift away from humanitarian spending to development funding. There is a need for government to incorporate refugees into national policy, funding, decision making and planning which, coupled with efforts to minimize wastage and misappropriation, would spread resources to marginalized areas and transform them into attractive business hubs. The suggestion was in line with the IFC’s rallying call to formalize the informal sector and view refugees and refugee centers as a market for prospective investors.
Kakuma refugee camp was cited as an example. According to a research done by IFC, the combination of the camp and the adjoining Kalobei creates a market of close to 400, 000 people all in need of basic amenities that can only come by through monetization. Kalobei needs additional banks to the single entity that supports the area, connectivity and internet solution providers to add to and satisfy the need of 65% of the population owning phones, electricity, consumer goods among much more.
The IFC called on players in the private sector to take a leap of faith and provide these solutions urging that, although untested, the great potential for monetization can be seen from the entrepreneurship spirit in the area in spite of challenges. Their sentiments were echoed by Kiko Romeo’s Ann McCreath who wondered how raw modeling, fashion and design market in Kakuma had remained untapped for so long…never mind that the camp claims world renowned models such as Halima Aden, Adut Akech and Ajuma Nasenyana as some of its daughters.