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Reimagining East Africa’s Biggest Refugee Camps as Cities: A Timely Solution to East Africa’s Enduring Refugee Crisis

Halima N. Iman 

Dadaab, is a town and a region located in Northeast Kenya. There are six refugee camps located within the region of Dadaab. Source: The University of British Columbia []

In the face of uncertainty surrounding the future of Kenya’s biggest refugee camps, a transformative approach emerges: turning refugee camps into semi-autonomous cities that offer refugees a second chance at a more dignified life.

This week marks three years since the Kenyan government gave UNHCR two weeks to decide the fate of Kenya’s largest refugee camps – Dadaab and Kakuma citing threats of insecurity from Al-Shabab, an armed group that allegedly used it as a recruitment ground for terrorist attacks.

Last year, the Kenyan government and UNHCR announced a plan that could transform the lives of more than 600,000 refugees in an effort to convert refugee camps into urban settlements in what was termed the Shirika Plan. The idea was to depart from the traditional camp model and create an immediate solution that would open the door to fuller economic integration of refugees. The goal was to bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and development in response to increasing needs, risks, and vulnerabilities faced in protracted displacement situations.

But to date, the Shirika Plan remains just a plan. Its fate remains tied to the elusive promise of donor funding as international donors are yet to commit to the plan, demanding an elaborate strategy of more direct benefit to refugees. They are also proposing to grant citizenship to long-term refugees who have been in the country for decades, something the Kenyan government has yet to commit to. In Garissa County, leaders have already called for an immediate suspension of the plan due to a lack of inclusion and involvement of local elected leaders and the refugees themselves. According to Kenya’s Prime Cabinet Secretary Mr. Musalia Mudavadi, implementation of this transformation would also require a robust legal framework and reforms that would underpin these developments for the benefit of both refugees and the local community.

Meanwhile, in Dadaab, the situation continues to worsen with the new influx of Somalis seeking safety from drought and conflict back home in Somalia. The camp, established in 1990 as a temporary haven now houses more than 364,401 refugees. Among these, 274274 are officially registered while 90,127 await registration as of 31st August 2023, according to Government Data. Inside the camp, humanitarian conditions are deteriorating. According to the World Food Program, food rations have been cut from 80% to 60% due to reduced donor funding. Shelter for new arrivals is also running out, coupled with limited or no access to clean water and sanitation.

In light of the above, it is time to think bigger about Kenya’s and East Africa’s refugee crisis. After all, a good plan is a plan that has a high chance of being delivered. Successful implementation of the Shirika Plan must begin with a mindset change that requires us to part with the wrong idea that the refugee crisis is temporary. It is not. The Dadaab complex houses families that have spent two generations as refugees. Only when we start to acknowledge the permanence of this crisis shall we craft a successful integration strategy.

We must treat Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma like a protracted refugee crisis and explore alternative approaches aimed at generating immediate improvements for refugees’ living conditions. A model guaranteed to benefit refugees and the host community while simultaneously demonstrating the benefits of integration to national governments.

One such approach is the charter cities model, an innovative concept premised on building new cities known as charter cities. Charter cities are new urban developments that have been granted special jurisdiction to create their own governance systems. The key aim of charter cities is to improve governance through deep regulatory and administrative reforms. Although not entirely new, the charter cities model seems to be the best policy tool to address Kenya’s integration problem as it presents a pathway to sustainable development while at the same time responding to the immediate needs of refugees.

At a time when Kenya ranks as the 4th largest refugee hosting country in Africa and 10th in the whole world, the model offers a solution that aims to provide refugees with a place of safety, increased freedom of movement, additional opportunities for self-reliance, and an immediate assistance network.

Charter cities draw inspiration from several existing models that have been successfully implemented in various locations around the world. The common feature of such models is their ability to demonstrate how localized governance can be used to transform poverty-stricken places into world-class cities within two or three generations.

The most familiar of these models is the classical Special Economic Zone (SEZ), traditionally used to minimize or eliminate tariffs to liberalize trade and foreign investment in certain geographic areas. But unlike charter cities, SEZs do not possess political autonomy that allows for the creation or improvement of governance systems.

When created, Kenya’s refugee charter city would be governed by a coalition of partners led by the UNHCR-in a coordinating role, the national government, city developers, investors, refugees, and local community leaders, through a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Such a coordinated partnership would ensure better urban management and governance within the jurisdiction, and mitigate the risk of local community objection to refugee integration. 

The initial investment in setting up the city would largely come from the funds that UNCHR and the Kenyan government have allocated for refugee integration. These funds would then be supplemented by the growing tax revenues from businesses operating in the city, with the goal of reaching the financial sustainability of the city.

The refugee charter city must therefore offer refugees the freedom to work, start businesses, engage in entrepreneurial activity, invent, and create in the formal economy of Kenya. Skilled professionals would be allowed to continue working in their occupations, while children, women, and the elderly who might find hardship in quickly integrating into the labor market would be supported with specialized services that respond to their needs, and facilitate an easier integration toward self-reliance.

Refugee communities are vibrant marketplaces that have the potential to contribute to their country’s economies and attract private sector support and investment.  All they need is support development that empowers them and treats them as partners, not mere recipients. Kakuma, in North West Kenya is a good example of how private sector interventions can offer sustainable solutions for refugees at a time when government budgets and aid agencies’ funding are increasingly overstretched. 

If Kenya’s Shirika Plan is effectively implemented, it has the potential to establish a worldwide model for refugee management, emphasizing refugee integration over encampment. However, achieving the goal poses numerous challenges including robust data management, infrastructure development, and coordination among diverse stakeholders. Having passed the Refugee Act of 2022 that gives refugees a range of rights including freedom of movement, the right to work, better access to financial services, documentation, education, and the ability to start a business, Kenya could become a new global leader in refugee response. With modification, the Shirika Plan will be a landmark and a source of national pride.


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