Trade Forum Features

Breaking down barriers to economic integration

22 December 2016
ITC News
With the right policies, host countries can benefit from refugees’ skills

The influx of refugees and migrants presents a continual challenge for societies across the world. Some current policy approaches have at best lacked meaningful impact or at worst contributed to human rights violations.

Each manifestation of the global refugee crisis – whether it be the one on Europe’s borders, the one that created East Africa’s sprawling city-camps or one of the several lesser-known instances worldwide – is enmeshed in variety of divisive political themes. Those include existing immigration dynamics, cultural identity, economic stability and, more often than not, national security. In many countries, from northern Europe to southern Africa, a bleak, trans-cultural narrative has emerged: refugees and migrants as destabilising outsiders. They arrive with cultures and beliefs antithetical to the status quo, potentially threatening the peace, prosperity and homogeneity of their reluctant host societies.

On a societal level, Kenya’s attitudes towards its 600,000 refugees broadly conform to this narrative, with a particular onus on the Somali refugee majority. However, due to ongoing social challenges that affect citizens and refugees alike, refugees in Kenya face problems their counterparts in Europe most likely never will.

Chief among these are the extreme poverty that creates a barrier to education, healthcare and other basic needs and the systemic police harassment arising from conflation of refugees with terrorists by senior political figures. Critically, they are faced with unfair legal barriers to economic integration, particularly the restriction on rights of movement; inability to open bank accounts due to lack of recognition for refugee mandates and identity cards. They also face a work-permit system that ensures that fewer than 10 refugees in the whole country secure formal, legal employment each year. In fact, refugees in Kenya have only one official means to fully integrate into normal society – by marrying a Kenyan and then waiting the requisite seven years.


Despite this, refugees are an active force in the Kenyan economy. The livestock and goods markets of the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps are the biggest and most vibrant economic ecosystems in their regions; the dominantly Somali district of Eastleigh in Nairobi, where the distinction between migrant, refugee and citizen is a matter of documentation only, accounts for more than a quarter of Nairobi’s tax revenue. Yet the Kenyan government regularly threatens to repatriate the residents of Dadaab. And a series of persecutory police operations in Nairobi since 2012 have spurred many refugee businesspeople to relocate, removing billions of shillings from the local economy in the process.

It is against this background that refugees live, work, do the best they can for their families and try to integrate. Take the case of Didier, a young wood carver from a Rwandan family. He is a true artisan, carving dozens of high-quality pieces of art per month that will eventually be sold in some of Nairobi’s many tourist markets. His dream is to be involved in the distribution and selling of the fruits of his handiwork instead of having no choice but to sell them to a middleman for cash, as currently happens. This is because he and his friends are unable to register a company or open bank accounts, to become businessmen in their own right. The dream of creating a legitimate business, of taking his skills and imagination to the next level, is effectively denied him.

Given a different situation – and a different set of refugee policies – Didier could be an active player in Nairobi’s art and souvenir markets instead of being relegated to the outskirts. Similar frustrations are experienced by many refugee entrepreneurs: from South Sudanese women selling their delicious traditional peanut butter via their networks instead of via supermarkets, to Congolese tailors unable to legally import their fabric in any large quantity – instead relying on informal, family-based networks to do the transporting for them.

Then there are those who, if the rules were different, have the potential to become true superstars. Jolie, a Congolese woman in her early twenties living in Kakuma refugee camp, has been obsessed with computers as long as she can remember. She ate up the limited digital skills training offered by NGOs, taught herself coding in a variety of languages and eventually far surpassed in skill both her instructors and the highly paid Western consultants drafted in to design such trainings.

Jolie’s website boasts a stunning variety of competencies, from app development to graphic design, website authoring to database management. She even writes novels in both English and French. Yet, instead of having opportunities to engage with Nairobi’s booming tech sector – in which she would not just thrive, but truly shine – she is unable to leave Kakuma, unable to be employed and unable to register a legal business. In many ways it is as if she lives in a different world where the opportunities of our own can be glimpsed and dreamed of, a tantalizing promise forever out of reach.

There are many organizations – including the Xavier Project, the one I work for – who try to help skilled refugees engage in Kenya’s economy and improve their livelihoods. However, all the training in the world is worth very little if the legal environment needed to put it to good use remains forbidding.

If Kenya – or any other country – embraced refugee-friendly policies, particularly in regards to employment and business, what returns would they yield? As empowered economic actors, refugees would contribute to local and national marketplaces and economies. Markets would benefit from stronger international links with refugee home countries and diaspora groups. Eventually, many will find their way into the middle class – the driving force of every country’s economy.

If Kenya fosters a climate of acceptance and integration instead of mistrust and persecution – in short, if the country embraced its historic pan-African principles – it will find refugees to be people no different from its own citizens who can participate in growth and contribute towards future prosperity for everyone.