In contrast to Uganda, Kenya does not formally allow refugees to work and has an encampment policy. We undertook baseline data collection in and around the Kakuma refugee camps and Nairobi during 2016 and 2017. Across both contexts, we randomly sampled 4366 refugees and members of the host community.

We aim to follow the same population over time, and will collect further data in Kenya in 2019.

Initial analysis highlights the following insights, each of which challenge commonly held assumptions:

  1. There is no single regulatory framework in Kenya. The implementation of regulation on the right to work is unevenly enforced across the country with the right to work being de facto tolerated in certain parts of the country.
  2. No right to work does not mean unemployment. 38% of refugees are employed within the Kakuma camps, albeit mainly by NGOs and international organisations, compared with 48% of the Turkana population.
  3. Refugees themselves represent an important source of social protection for other refugees. When asked where they would go in an emergency, refugees prioritised community, family, and networks over formal organisations.
  4. The main barrier to work is not regulation. Refugees identified market conditions like demand, supply, competition, and access to capital as the biggest impediments to entrepreneurship.
  5. Refugees are not necessarily worse off than hosts. Somali, Congolese, and South Sudanese refugees all have more years of education than the Turkana host community.

Our first publication based on this work is called Refugee Economies in Kenya. It represents one of the first reports to ask ‘what difference does it make to be a refugee?’ by systematically comparing socio-economic outcomes for refugees and host communities. The report compares and explains refugees' and host communities' welfare outcomes in three areas: livelihoods, living standards, and subjective well-being.

In Kakuma camp refugees are better off than the surrounding host population.  For example, even though they have comparable employment levels, working refugees’ self-reported median income is almost three times higher than for the local Turkana (around $55/month compared to under $25/month), and refugees have better diets, higher consumption, and more assets. Despite the gap, the Turkana hosts benefit immensely from the refugee presence.

In Nairobi, although refugees are better off than they would be in camps, they are worse off than the local host population across almost all metrics. For example, comparing Somali refugees with local hosts, the employment levels are 44% and 60% and the income gap is $150/month compared to $200/month, while refugees do worse across all other living standards indicators.

Four sets of factors seem to explain these gaps between refugees and hosts: regulation (how you are governed), networks (who you know), capital (what you have), and identity (who you are). In some cases these factors may advantage refugees, and in other cases they may disadvantage refugees relative to hosts. For example, in terms of regulation, refugees are disadvantaged, and we show the cost to refugees of these restrictions. In Kakuma, refugee entrepreneurs are disproportionately likely to incur ‘business tax’ (30% of Somalis businesses pay compared to 10% of Turkana businesses), and to be forced to pay police bribes (10% of the Turkana, compared to 54% of South Sudanese, 43% of Congolese, and 23% of Somalis). But in terms of networks, refugees often have advantages. In Nairobi, for example, 43% of Somalis receive remittances (at a median level of $2500/year) compared to 36% of the surrounding community ($1200/year).

Three practical insights stand out: 1) even in a country with restricted regulations, refugees are economically active; 2) refugees’ and hosts’ economic lives are interdependent: a good refugee policy must also be a good host community policy; 3) every major refugee-hosting context should have an economic policy and strategy specifically for refugees and the immediate host community, based on robust analysis and consultation.