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Kenya: Focus on solutions for Dadaab refugees critical as humanitarian needs increase

The push for durable solutions for refugees needs to be hastened to ensure refugees are self-reliant, economically empowered and well-integrated by providing them with the tools and opportunities to integrate into society.

Aerial view of Dagahaley camp

One year after Kenya announced it will close refugee camps in the country by the end of June this year, refugees in Dadaab are staring at a perfect storm.

“Durable solutions are still not within reach for the over 200,000 refugees in Dadaab, humanitarian assistance remains way below what is needed, and the reverberating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic along with soaring prices of essential commodities have nibbled away at people’s coping capacities”, says Jeroen Mathys, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) project coordinator in Dadaab.

All this comes at a time when refugees in Dadaab say they are having to share their meagre resources with rising numbers of new arrivals in the camps, who have been forced to move in search of food and water as a withering drought has swept east Africa. New arrivals cannot access services provided in the camps after Kenya stopped registering asylum seekers in 2016.

This year, MSF's outreach teams have reported some 105 new arrivals, mostly from Somalia, only in Dagahaley camp—one of three camps in Dadaab—although this is most likely a tiny fraction of the overall numbers.

“Lack of clarity over the future of the camps has hamstrung humanitarian agencies’ ability to scale up assistance for refugees and host communities as many are struggling to secure funding and plan activities for the future”, says Jeroen Mathys. “Whatever progress is being made in moving towards integrating refugees in Kenya is being fast outpaced by new humanitarian needs on the ground as refugees have depleted the few options they had to top up ever-reducing assistance”.

Many refugee families have either lost livestock to drought or have been forced to sell it off, so there is little milk available. Food rations have remained inadequate as a result of constant funding cuts, while informal jobs in the camps are few to go by as economic activity is weak and humanitarian operations paralysed. All this combined has led to a sharp increase in food insecurity. Malnutrition admissions in MSF health centre in Dagahaley camp is on the rise, more than doubling in February this year as compared to last. A large majority of them are children and pregnant women.

Mental health concerns in the camps have also increased dramatically, particularly among young refugees, who lost out on education opportunities during the lockdown in the pandemic. Some had to forgo scholarships, and many have since dropped out of education altogether. The camp closure announcement brought further uncertainty, heightening mental health concerns. As a result, substance abuse among the youth in the camps has increased and our teams continue to hear cases of attempted suicide among refugees.

The new Refugee Act brought in by Kenya this year has shifted the focus from closing the camps to easing refugees’ integration in the country. It has revived previously stalled efforts to work towards providing work opportunities and access to public services for refugees.

“We now urgently need strong political will and increased donor support to drive the process of refugee integration forward”, says Dana Krause, MSFs country director in Kenya.

“Kenya should immediately announce that camps will not close and release a roadmap for integration to put an end to uncertainty among refugees. Donors must swiftly step-up support for humanitarian agencies so they can scale up assistance and protection for refugees including for those newly arrived before the humanitarian situation deteriorates even further”.

“After what has been a three-decade ordeal for the Dadaab refugees, we cannot abandon them now. We, the international community, have a responsibility to push for integration to become a reality, so refugee communities can leave the life of dependency behind” says Dana Krause. “Kenya and donor countries must double down on efforts to provide durable solutions for refugees. They must ensure the availability of predictable and timely humanitarian assistance to address critical needs and support refugees’ transition towards a dignified life. 

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