NGO backs out-of-camp policy for refugees


A newly registered Somali refugee supports herself on a chain-link perimeter fence at Dadaab camp on July 23, 2011.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Some countries have found themselves hosting refugees in camps for a longer time than expected.
  • The refugee numbers have ballooned from the first generation of arrivals through to the third. 

A US non-profit organisation has warned against “warehousing”refugees by keeping them in camps for a long time, saying it prevents host countries from utilising the talent of those fleeing wars and other forms of danger.

The President and Chief Executive Officer of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Eskinder Negash, said encampment of refugees is illegal and inhumane, adding that it keeps refugees in a cycle of despair.

Mr Negash spoke during an interview aired on NTV to mark the World Refugee Day.

The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a non-governmental organisation that fights for the rights of people in forced or voluntary migration globally.

It was formed in the US in 1911, but now operates in various countries including Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Over the years, some countries have found themselves hosting refugees in camps for a longer time than expected.

The refugee numbers have ballooned from the first generation of arrivals through to the third. 

In Kenya, the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps were opened in the 1990s following conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Presently, Kenya hosts over 700,000 refugees.

Mr Eskinder said the idea of encampment has proven futile, not just in Kenya but in other places where refugees are forced into one place and their movement restricted.

“For 15 years, we have been advocating for out-of-camp policies. In the Refugee Convention of 1951, camps are not mentioned. Camps are by design temporary, not permanent,” he said.

“But in Sudan we have camps since 1967/68, we have Dadaab (in Kenya) since 1991, Kakuma which started with a few refugees is now becoming like a city. The idea of warehousing refugees for that long doesn’t seem to be very humane. Refugee warehousing is dehumanising. There is no future…it doesn’t seem to be a good policy for human beings,” he said.

The NGO has helped resettle about 370,000 refugees in third countries around the world since 1980s. It is now focused on helping unaccompanied children.

But with the numbers of the displaced rising — a recent UN Refugee Agency report said the number of people forcibly displaced reached 143 million in 2023 — local solutions are being encouraged.

The Kenyan Government announced on Thursday that it will be granting special status IDs to refugees to enable them move around freely, seek jobs, start businesses and get an education. 

The programme to be launched in November targets 700,000 refugees on Kenyan soil, mostly encamped in Dadaab and Kakuma.

Known as Shirika Plan, it will be implemented over a four-year period. The first phase of the plan will require about $943 million (Sh115.6 billion) to be used for turning the camps into municipalities, issuing IDs to refugees and providing social amenities .

The government and local county administrations, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and various NGOs will jointly implement the programme.

“This money will come from various partners and donors, including governments and the private sector. It will be channelled not only through the government but also through international NGOs, county governments and ministries,” Immigration Principal Secretary Julius Bitok said at a ceremony to mark the World Refugee Day in Turkana County.

The World Bank and other donors have offered to finance the project, but with tight conditions.

The project is a big turnaround for Kenya which had for years wanted to shut down the refugee centres ostensibly to deal with insecurity. The programme could offer a win-win solution, as long as it gets regular funding.

The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants sees an end of camps as a good solution that should be supported.

“These are not criminals. These are people who came to Kenya or any other country because they had a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. They didn’t choose to be refugees. 

“The solution is, as the UNHCR, the international organisation for refugees recognises, out-of-camp policies. There is a lot of discussion around it. And that is what we have been pushing.

“If you look at every country, the US or any other place, refugees bring a lot of talent and they add a lot of value to the economy. Refugees have never been a burden to the society,” Mr Eskinder said.

He said freedom for refugees does not mean forcing host countries to give them citizenship. But there can be local arrangements to ease their movements and access to jobs.