Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: Kenya

By: Lena Musoka

April 20, 2023

Kenya is one of Africa’s largest refugee-hosting countries, with more than 500,000 refugees and asylum seekers coming from East and Central Africa (data as of June 2022). More than half come from Somalia, followed by South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Almost half the refugee population is in Dadaab, Africa’s largest and longest-lived refugee camp. Kakuma, another refugee camp located in Northern Kenya, is expanding. A significant number of refugees live outside formal “camps,” notably in Nairobi. Kenya also has an internally displaced population estimated currently at 200,000.

Forced Migration: Causes and Trends

Somalis are the leading refugee population in Kenya, mostly driven by the long-standing violence and political instability in Somalia, linked but not confined to the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab. The Islamist links and terrorist attacks in Kenya exacerbate tensions around the refugee population, with the Kenyan government repeatedly threatening the closure of the Dadaab camp and generating tensions with host communities as well as aggravating interreligious tensions in Kenya.

South Sudanese are the second largest group of refugees in Kenya. Civil war in South Sudan since 2013 has displaced a large part of the population, despite the 2018 peace deal. Forced migrants from the Great Lakes region, including the DRC, have reached Kenya.

Internal Displacement

Internal displacements in Kenya are largely linked to ethnic tensions, especially around elections. Disruptions are also linked to resource-based conflicts.Both natural and human-made disasters affect communities, forcing migration to other regions. Resource-based conflicts in pastoralist communities in northern Kenya are another factor of internal migration.

Kenya’s Response: Government and Policies

Kenya has an open-door policy and has hosted refugees for many years. However, policies toward refugees have changed over time. Kenya’s 2006 Refugee Act largely restricts refugees to resettlement areas. The encampment policies also reflect terrorism and security threats. The policy affects refugees living in urban areas, limiting access to development support for urban refugees. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is the primary organization that, in collaboration with the Kenyan government, manages the delivery of services such as health and education to refugees living in the refugee camps and to refugees in Nairobi. They do this in partnership with various non-governmental organizations, a number of which have faith links. As of February 23, 2022, the Refugee Act 2021 stipulates a right to legal documentation for employment purposes and freedom of movement. 

To respond to internal displacements following interethnic conflicts, especially during presidential elections, in 2012 Kenya adopted the Prevention, Protection, and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Act. This states that the government “shall create the conditions for and provide internally displaced persons with a durable solution in safety and dignity.” The Kenyan government also put in place several laws to prevent and address displacement, particularly as it relates to disaster management

Faith-Inspired Organizations and Faith Leaders

In refugee camps, faith plays an important role. In Dadaab and Kakuma, faith-inspired organizations (FIOs) have collaborated with local religious leaders, many of whom are widely respected and well-trusted in the refugee communities. They implement support programs in areas such as health and education. For urban refugee communities, both international and local FIOs run programs to provide specialized services. The involvement of faith actors also comes with its challenges, as faith affiliations can prevent effective operations (for example, Christian organizations may be mistrusted by Muslim refugees) and the involvement with controversial topics such as contraceptive use among youth.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges. Contributors in this series weigh in on causes and trends of forced migration and internal displacement in Kenya, as well as the roles of the Kenyan government and faith-inspired organizations in response to this issue.

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