It’s a long, weary ride for refugees who make it to Kenya

·4-min read
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For many refugees in eastern Africa, Kenya is home – with UNHCR figures showing that more than half a million live in the country. While Kenya is the final destination for many, it is also the beginning of an odyssey of paperwork.

Emmanuel, originally from South Sudan, fled in December 2015 due to the ongoing conflict there. He says he felt unsafe.

“I left because it was a matter of choosing between death and life,” he tells RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

“There was a crisis in my country, and my village where I came from was not traditionally ours. It belongs to another community. When violence broke out, it was unbearable for me; I lost relatives.”

Emmanuel is part of an influx of refugees that has doubled around the world over the past 20 years. According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 82 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes.

He is here for a meeting in Nairobi with other refugees from various African countries – partly to support each other, but also to get help for the difficult process of applying for asylum or residency.

Emmanuel found shelter with the UNHCR, which provided guidance on how to register as a refugee. He now lives and works in Nairobi.

While there are just over 1,000 south Sudanese residing in Kenya, more than 50 percent of all refugees in Kenya originate from Somalia. Other major nationalities are South Sudanese, Congolese and Ethiopians.

Refugee or asylum seeker?

The reason why the person fled will determine whether they should file a refugee application or an asylum seeker application.

Most people will not have any identification documents with them and will need to get an asylum seeker pass, says Damaris Bonareri, a legal affairs advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

This “pass cannot be used to get you much; sometimes even the NGOs around will tell you they are not able to help you because their mandate is to serve only refugees,” he says.

“An asylum seeker really has to follow up to make sure they get recognised as a refugee for them to start getting certain services,” he adds.

For asylum seekers, access to these basic services is pegged on documentation given after the registration process, which can take months, even years to complete.

Attending the refugee meeting is Benin Manyang. Although she is South Sudanese, she was born in Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. While refugees are warmly welcomed into Kakuma Camp, the process can be arduous.

“It took us a while, almost seven months to be registered,” she says.

Different status for children

Manyang is part of what is called the second and third generation, or children born into refugee families. Even though they were born in Kenya, they are considered immigrants. They are not given automatic citizenship at birth. This complicates their official status and their identity

For Eric, a Rwandan refugee, lack of access to the right documentation has been a headache. His family fled the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. He was born and raised in Nairobi, but because of his lack of an identity card, he can’t even access basic services as an adult over 18 years of age.

He asked that we don’t use his real name.

“Maybe you want to go to college, or maybe find a job, find a hustle. You need your own identification,” says Eric.

“At times it’s difficult to explain to police and they arrest you, but some of them they don't have enough information on how to handle refugees.”

Eric can’t apply for basic government services without an ID card.

Police can be rough on refugees without papers in the capital. For Manyang, life without papers in Kakuma camp up north is equally as hard. Many of them experience psychological problems.

Economic inclusion law

Refugees require a movement pass which takes up to three day to process, but expires after seven days. Some refugees in the camp feel helpless due to restricted movement and lack of healthcare.

“We have hospitals in camp but at the same time we don't have medicine in hospital. So you find yourself that you are sick and you are not able to get the medicines,” she says.

“When you don't have any support from outside come it's really hard for you here; so many are going through trauma. We had a lot of suicides in the camp due to the situation that we are in,” she adds.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed significant policy changes on refugee economic inclusion and integration into law late last year.

The new act also allows refugees an opportunity to earn a living, instead of depending on aid agencies.

According to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee service, refugees increase productivity in their host countries when they are integrated across various communities.

They also help enrich their local communities, creating cultural diversity within the local population. Refugees also help nurture understanding and appreciation for social diversity.

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