Refugees in Kenya Gain Employment Rights as New Law Takes Effect

Ajak Jok Ajak is perusing case files on a rainy afternoon in Nairobi.

The 28-year-old South Sudanese refugee – who grew up at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya – never dreamed he would work one day as an intern at a major law firm.

Kenya has been hailed for passing a law giving hundreds of thousands of refugees living in the country better access to education and employment. While some refugees in Kenya are reaping the benefits of the 2021 legislation, many face challenges that include the government’s plan to shut down refugee camps by the end of June.

Ajak, now a law school graduate says thanks to Kenya’s Refugee Act, getting a job is much easier than it used to be.

“You had to obtain a research permit before you start research,” he said. “You had to obtain [an] internship permit before you start your internship – all those things. Now it means, you will not need another additional procedure, but just only your qualifications.”

The Refugee Act that was signed into law last year went into effect in February. Some 500,000 refugees who live in Kenya stand to benefit from the measure.

Jamin Kusuania, project manager at the International Rescue Committee in Nairobi, said the old policy restricted refugees’ movements.

“The biggest problem that refugees have had in this country since 1991 has actually been the incumbent policy where refugees are domiciled to live within particular camps,” Kusuania said. “And what we see in the Refugee Act of 2021 is that it moves toward removing that aspect of incumbent.”

Implementation of the Refugee Act has been slow. Speaking to VOA, Stanley Mwango from the Department of Refugee Services noted that parliament has not passed the regulation framework for the new law.

“The new law is part of the Kenyan government’s refugee integration program,” he said. “Refugee camps currently house more than 400,000 people, mostly from South Sudan and Somalia.”

Kenya’s government has said it will shut down the camps at the end of June, and previously cited security reasons. So far, there have been no evictions and relatively few people have left the sites voluntarily. For most of the refugees, home is the Dadaab camp, bordering Somalia, or Kakuma, which borders South Sudan.

Kenya has one of Africa’s largest refugee populations. Aid agencies say more work needs to be done. Kusuania said authorities need to be proactive in tackling the issues at hand. 

“The government will need to relook at the timelines that are actually in place, but also take cognizance of now the Refugee Act of 2021 and begin a rethink in terms of how then do we need to handle refugees in the country,” Kusuania said. “How do we need then to transition refugees from the camps? Because it needs to be a roadmap towards solutions.”

For Ajak, the new law couldn’t have come at a better time. After being held back because of his refugee status, the new law has allowed him to apply for admission as a lawyer at the High Court of Kenya and a job promotion.

“It has enabled the refugees to actually access certain services without them being restricted,” he said. “And that’s why you see some of us are very hopeful.”

Ajak has also left the camps and now lives in Nairobi. If the Refugee Act is put into action, more refugees like him may see their futures become brighter.

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