'It Is Better To Work for Yourself Than Sit and Wait for Aid'

Kenya needs workers. Kenya has Somali refugees who want to work. If only the government would get out of the way.


The dusty streets and patchwork buildings of Ifo, one of the camps that make up Dadaab Refugee Complex in eastern Kenya, don't seem like much of a home. But for Abdullahi Ahmed, now 62, Ifo has long been a home worth fighting for.

Ahmed arrived in Ifo back in 1991, when he fled the civil war in Somalia. His journey to the refugee camp was unspeakable: At one point, he had to leave his dying son under a tree and just keep walking. It's the kind of calculus from which a father never recovers, but Ahmed had to make it: His wife and other children were counting on him to lead them to safety, and Ahmed, himself emaciated and weak, couldn't carry the dying boy anymore.

In Ifo, he started building a new life. A loan from a fellow refugee turned into a vegetable stall, and that vegetable stall turned into a restaurant. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.

Today, Ahmed watches over Ifo like a friendly patriarch: His restaurant has become a community center of sorts, where fellow refugees inhale plates of rice and meat between colorful painted walls. Ifo feels settled, fixed in the landscape. But it wasn't always that way.

In 2006, representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called Ahmed and other community leaders to a meeting. For years, seasonal rains had caused flash floods, terrorizing Ifo's residents. The floods washed away homes, dismantled toilets, and ruined much-needed food and other supplies. On the advice of an engineer from Nairobi, the agency had decided to dismantle the entire settlement and relocate its residents.

Ahmed was aghast. Over the previous decade and a half, Ifo's residents had turned a desperate refugee camp into a city. Children had been born and raised there; small businesses had flourished; temporary huts made of sticks and repurposed tin cans had been refurbished into long-term homes. A second displacement would devastate this already-traumatized community.

Ahmed had lost one home due to war. He wasn't about to leave another one just because some bureaucrats told him he had to.

"I thought, 'This engineer from Nairobi is bogus,'" recalls Ahmed, who smiles broadly from behind a wiry scrub-brush beard. So he spoke up. Ahmed told the agency that the engineer they had hired was wrong. There was a better and cheaper alternative to relocation: a levee to redirect the floodwaters away from Ifo's families. In the months that followed, the UNHCR took Ahmed's advice and built the levee. The camp stayed put; the floods stopped. Ahmed was never paid a consultation fee, but he was right.

In 2017, the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to Kenya's refugee camps by 30 percent due to insufficient funding. In the good old days, the refugees at least got rice. Today, they don't even get that.

Of course he was right. Before the war, he had been one of Somalia's most respected civil engineers.

We are in the midst of the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. According to the UNHCR, the earth currently contains 68.5 million forcibly displaced people. To put that in context, the population of the United Kingdom is 66 million. There are more refugees in the world right now than Brits.

More than 870,000 Somali refugees are in the Horn of Africa and Yemen alone, while another 2.1 million Somalis are internally displaced. Dadaab, the world's third-largest refugee complex, hosts the highest percentage of refugees from Somalia.

First established in 1991, Dadaab has grown over the decades to become a city of 209,000 people. The majority are Somali, but refugees from Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Congo can be found there as well. Life in the camps is grim: Hundreds of thousands of traumatized people, half-starving on too-small rations, live in conditions that Oxfam calls "barely fit for humans." (Dadaab is eerily well-named: The word means "a rocky hard place.")

Taking care of all these people comes with a hefty price tag that no one wants to pay. According to a report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), proper care in 2018 would have cost an estimated $191.1 million; as late as November, only 19 percent of that was funded. In 2017, the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to Kenya's refugee camps by 30 percent due to insufficient money. In the good old days, the refugees at least got rice. Today, they don't even get that.

"The food they give us is not even fit for dogs to eat," says Bishar Ahmed, 35, who came to Dadaab from Kismayu, Somalia, in 1998. "We want to work so we can buy food that is fit for human consumption."

A refugee entrepreneur in Hagadera camp negotiates with a client. Jillian Keenan

But Kenya has imposed harsh limits on the refugees' ability to work. As we'll see, this doesn't just make life harder for the people in the camps. By hobbling their self-reliance, it forces large numbers of them to depend on the authorities for survival, inflating those enormous costs. According to the World Bank, more than 90 percent of Somali refugees in Kenya are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs.

Third-country resettlement options for Somali refugees are grim and getting worse. Historically, America has been a positive force in global refugee resettlement, taking in tens of thousands each year. In 2016, 90 percent of African refugees who settled somewhere other than their home country or the country to which they initially fled ended up in the United States, according to the IRC. But in January 2017, President Donald Trump slashed the refugee resettlement cap more than in half and issued an executive order severely restricting entry for citizens of half a dozen countries, including Somalia. Now U.S. refugee resettlement is at its lowest point since 1977. Somali refugee resettlement has seen a 97.4 percent decrease from the first three months of 2016, according to State Department data. And as anti-refugee sentiment flares, Europe hasn't done much better: In 2017, E.U. member states took in only 9,451 refugees out of a total of 1,190,000 with resettlement needs, according to IRC.

As Dadaab lingered in a state of limbo for decades with no exit strategy in sight, Kenya began to show signs of asylum fatigue. In 2012, then–President Mwai Kibaki called for refugees in the camps to be "resettled" inside Somalia, saying "Kenya can no longer continue carrying the burden."

Then security concerns made the situation worse. Following brutal attacks at Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015, Kenyan officials found a quarter of a million scapegoats in Dadaab. Claiming that the Somali terror group Al-Shabab had infiltrated the camps, making them a "nursery" for violent extremism, Deputy President William Ruto threatened to close the complex down. Human rights groups condemned the proposal and Ruto backpedaled. But a year later, in May 2016, the controversy was reignited when the Kenyan government announced that it had disbanded its Department for Refugee Affairs as a first step to shuttering Dadaab.

The timing of the announcement was significant: Just two months earlier, the E.U. had brokered a deal with Turkey to send back every Syrian refugee who crossed its borders. The double standard did not go unnoticed in Nairobi.

"In Europe, rich, prosperous, and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War II," Kenyan Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said at the time. "There comes a time when we must think primarily about the security of our people. Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now."

Following a petition from human rights organizations, Kenyan High Court Judge John Mativo ruled that the government's plans to close Dadaab and repatriate its refugees were an unconstitutional "act of…persecution." The disbanded Department for Refugee Affairs was replaced with a new Refugee Affairs Secretariat.

Since then, life in limbo has continued. More than 79,000 people have voluntarily repatriated to Somalia, but many in the camps say they'll never go back. Closing Dadaab would be a logistical and political nightmare—a quarter of a million people won't just disappear. Where would they go? Who would pay for the relocation operation? What if the now three generations of Dadaab refugees simply refused to leave the only home many of them have ever known?

As former Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence put it in City of Thorns (Picador), his 2016 book: "No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent."

Refugees are often seen as a drain on national resources. But that doesn't have to be true. When Abdullahi Ahmed shared his engineering expertise with UNHCR, for example, he saved the global community from paying for an exceedingly expensive relocation. (The agency could not provide an estimate of how much it would have cost to move Ifo, but according to The Nation, a proposal to relocate Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi was projected to run roughly $9 million.) Failing to capitalize on the economic value of refugees isn't just a humanitarian mistake. It's an economic one.

Thirty years ago, Dadaab was a remote outpost where camel and goat herders had to walk 66 miles to the nearest town just to sell their meat and milk. Today, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Kenyan, Danish, and Norwegian governments, the direct and indirect benefits of Dadaab's camps amount to as much as $14 million a year in a region that sorely needs it. That study also found that Dadaab's informal refugee-run markets turn over around $25 million per year—a quarter of all economic activity in northeastern Kenya.

Dadaab's informal refugee-run markets turn over around $25 million per year—a quarter of all economic activity in northeastern Kenya.

"We would rather have the refugees stay around; they are our brothers," says Mahat Moge, 37, a Kenyan who owns a conference venue and restaurant just outside the camps. "And," he adds with a grin, "we can do business with them." Moge buys sugar, milk, and other staples from refugee vendors, since their informal markets operate outside the Kenyan legal framework and therefore don't incur a tax.

In April 2018, the International Finance Corporation released a consumer and market study of Kakuma, a smaller refugee camp on the other side of Kenya. Rather than focus on the camp's humanitarian needs, the study looked at Kakuma "through the lens of a private firm looking to enter a new market." It found a vibrant informal economy, including 14 wholesalers—an economic vitality the camp shares with its host community.

"Kakuma camp and town are a single market in more than just name," the report concludes. "Over the past decades, the two have become socioeconomically interdependent with refugees hiring, trading, and working with town residents and vice versa."

The economic value of refugees isn't unique to that country or even to the continent of Africa. One study, which looked at the economic impact of refugees in Ohio, found that the Refugee Services Collaborative of Cleveland spent an estimated total of $4.8 million on refugee services in 2012—but refugee activity boosted the local economy by an estimated $48 million, created 650 jobs, and generated $2.7 million in state and local tax revenue. In the words of a 2016 report from the Open Political Economy Network, "Investing one euro—or dollar—in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two in economic benefits within five years." The 2017 book Refugee Economies (Oxford University Press) concludes that "far from being an inevitable burden, refugees have the capacity to help themselves and contribute to their host societies—if we let them."

But if the influx of economic value that refugees bring is so clear to researchers, why isn't it more clear to the countries that host them, such as Kenya? If refugees build such vibrant and thriving informal markets, what has stopped them from translating that potential into formal employment and self-reliance?

Although the UNHCR gives Kenya's refugees the essentials of survival—free shelter, free food, free water, free medical care, free education, even free firewood—entrepreneurship is everywhere. Parts of Hagadera, one of Dadaab's camps, are comparable to any other central business district in small-town East Africa, if you ignore the fact that the buildings are made of sticks and sheet metal rather than concrete. (Government policies prohibit the refugees from building permanent structures.) Refugees have opened stores, restaurants, photography studios, internet cafés, and much more. In the words of 28-year-old Ahmed Ali, who tries to work as a mechanic even though roadblocks around the region mean that sometimes months pass without a car to repair, "It is better to work for yourself than sit and wait for aid."

Yet despite all the "free" things the camps' residents receive, the refugees themselves are not free. Two policies—the UNHCR's incentive worker policy and the Kenyan government's encampment policy—waste the vast human potential at places like Dadaab, with negative consequences for refugees and native Kenyans alike.

Abdiaziz Ali, who was born in Mogadishu in the late '80s or early '90s (like many refugees, he isn't certain about his age), was always one of the smart kids. He arrived at Dadaab as a toddler and quickly began to excel academically. When he finished secondary school in 2004, he was accepted to the University of Nairobi. After working for seven years, he finally saved enough to move to the capital city and begin studying for his B.A. in sociology and conflict resolution. At that point, Abdiaziz felt like he was living the dream: With hard work and an education, he would build a future that was brighter than the nightmare his parents had fled.

Refugee-run market. Jillian Keenan

Then the terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Garissa changed his life. In 2014, the Security Laws Amendment Act placed all refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya under so-called "encampment." Leaving Dadaab and other refugee settlements without a movement pass became nearly impossible. The government raided homes, businesses, and schools to round up refugees who were working or studying outside the camps.

"Kenyan police and security forces are using abusive and discriminatory tactics in the name of national security, targeting entire communities," Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch said at the time. Thousands of people were detained in police stations without charge. Just before what would have been his graduation ceremony, Abdiaziz was sent back to the camp where he grew up.

At Dadaab, Abdiaziz had no good options. With his degree in sociology and conflict resolution, he could have been a valuable asset to one of the NGOs that works in the camp complex. But refugees employed by UNHCR and its partners are allowed only to be "incentive workers." Regardless of their experience or qualifications, incentive workers earn as little as $50 a month, even as Kenyans are paid far more for doing the same jobs. "I will spend weeks writing a report," says one such worker, who makes the equivalent of about $80 a month working full-time for the International Rescue Committee, "and then the Kenyan who emails it out for me gets paid 10 times as much." (The incentive worker asked not to be identified. His job sucks, but in the absence of better options, he doesn't want to lose it.)

"NGOs will only pay Kenyans, because that is the law of the country," Abdiaziz says. "But private companies want to pay whoever is best. The problem is, private companies are not in the camps."

For a while, Abdiaziz considered going back to Somalia, where he'd be free of the Kenyan government's employment limitations. One of his childhood friends, Abbas Siraji, had left Dadaab in 2011 and returned to Mogadishu with dreams of rebuilding their homeland. At first, it went well: He was able to work for fair compensation in Somalia, and he was eventually appointed minister of public works and reconstruction. Then in May 2017, Abdiaziz learned that Siraji had been shot to death in Mogadishu. Abdiaziz had a wife and children. No job was worth that risk.

"Abbas used to tell us to come back home," says Abdiaziz. "But the moment he was killed, I knew I would never go back."

Today, Abdiaziz is placing his bets on the only free space he can access: the internet. He's using the secondhand laptop he bought as a student in Nairobi to get an online degree in computer programming and web design. Someday, he hopes, he can find overseas clients online.

Kenya's parliament is aware of these problems. In 2017, it passed the so-called Refugees Bill, which would have recognized employment and land ownership rights for roughly 500,000 refugees. "It does not make sense to continue as we have been," says former Kenyan Member of Parliament Agostinho Neto, who introduced the legislation. "We have refugees with professional backgrounds who could help support our economy and sustain themselves. Instead, they're incarcerated in the camps." Neto's bill was widely praised as a positive attempt to enable refugee self-reliance, but President Uhuru Kenyatta rejected it, citing a lack of constitutionally required "public participation" in the proposal.

The policies that have held back Abdiaziz hurt native Kenyans too. One refugee—you'll understand why he's anonymous in a moment—needs to buy a new generator for his successful business in Hagadera camp. He has applied for a movement pass to travel to Nairobi to make the purchase, but he knows he won't get it. After he's denied, he'll have one remaining option: pay to have a generator smuggled in from Somalia. The refugee entrepreneur will have to overpay for the machine, and some businessman in Nairobi will lose a sale. The only winners will be the Somali smugglers.

Amid all this uncertainty, there is a reason for hope: Kenya needs workers.

Thanks to recent discoveries of oil, gold, and other natural resources, Kenya's extractive sectors are booming. The industries could explode to as much as 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product by 2030, surpassing even traditional exports such as coffee. But Kenya doesn't have enough skilled labor to meet the booming demand. Already, the shortage has forced the Kenya Pipeline Company to import workers from China and Nigeria.

To address the problem, Tullow Oil Kenya launched a $1 million training program to equip new graduates with the knowledge they need to work in the oil and gas sector. In addition to geologists and engineers, there's a demand for people with skills in information technology, equipment repair, and welding.

"I feel like we are in an open prison," one 20-year-old welder in Ifo tells me. "Our skills are needed, but we can't use them." He has no clients, but he grabs his tools anyway, eager to show off the trade he learned from his cousin. Like the engineer who saved Ifo from the floodwaters, like millions of refugees around the world, the welder could contribute to his adopted country's growing economy. But instead he waits, stuck in a rocky hard place, for clients who never appear.

"My name is Issaq Ahmed," he says, ripe with potential. "And I am a welder." At least he could be—if he were free to work.

NEXT: The Future of Marijuana Expungements is Automation

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I remember a decade ago when the Reason articles described the “utopian anarchy” that had flourished in Somalia thanks Clinton’s decision to withdraw our military from there. What happened?

    1. You remembered it wrong. That’s what happened. Reason reported on some beneficial aspects of anarchy and how people were trying to achieve things in Somalia without a central government. But of course, there’s really always a government. In Somalia it just happens to be whatever warlord currently controls your area. Reason never implied there was a utopia in Somalia.

      1. “Reason never implied there was a utopia in Somalia.”

        the continual lefty dimwit claim that libertarians offer ‘utopia’ is amusing amazing and clear evidence that lefty dimwits can’t read.
        Or won’t.
        Which one is it, sharmota4zeb?

      2. “it just happens to be whatever warlord currently controls your area”

        That’s anarchy

        1. No, that’s feudalism.

  2. It’s deeply insulting to tell someone they are useless. They have no skills to contribute and never will, so they must quietly sit at home and receive your generous aid.

    Governments everywhere do this. They call it welfare, aid, relief, etc. They give handouts only in exchange for total control and an acknowledgement from the person that they are indeed not contributing anything.

    1. These are the actions of a truly “Great Society”, though, right?

    2. It’s even worse when the aid comes in the form of material goods that put the local farmers and entrepreneurs out of business. You want to help a community, send them tools and raw materials and let them figure out trade and industry.

    3. As liberals remind us.. it’s either UBI and getting paid to do nothing or #learntocode. There are no other options.

      1. Professional activist?

      2. While acknowledging that a UBI isn’t a “cure-all,” and without access to the economics data on this particular refugee camp, I am forced to make assumptions, it is still quite possible that, instead of giving them rice and clothing, or whatever, that giving them the money to invest in doing their own agriculture and industry, even at a low level, might result in better outcomes. Every town, and every city, left to its own devices, has talented people who will rise to the top, and improve the lives of everyone, directly or indirectly. Of course, I am sure the feudal government would find a way to ruin it, anyway.

        1. Better yet would be to give them nothing, but let them work… Better still would be to NOT have let them in in the first place.

  3. Was this article edited by a monkey? There’s tons of sentences that are duplicated and copy pasted around. It looks horrid. Clean up your act Reason.

    1. *There are tons…

      1. Or
        There are many duplicated and copy pasted sentences.

        Ok just kinda bored at the moment.

  4. On the front of US taking in refugees…

    The percentage of foreign born people in the US matches all-time highs, and immigration for the last 25 years or more is equal to the peak from the late 1800’s – early 1900’s.

    There is a reason that anti-immigrant sentiments are being exploited by politicians like Trump. It is because the rate of change is at an all-time high. With the native-born birthrate at all-time lows, this effect is exacerbated.

    Not to say whether it is right or wrong, but this is how the human condition works.

    1. —Not to say whether it is right or wrong, but this is how the human condition works.—

      It’s not the birthrate of the native-born that is at an all-time low. Just Caucasians. I’m not saying that it is right or wrong, but it is how some who feel “replaced” see it, tikki torches and all.

      1. WRONG. All native born people, including non whites, are at all time lows. Native born Mexicans don’t even replace themselves nowadays!

        Anyway, to the broader point… We have a shit ton of foreigners, and their native born kids who still are heavily influenced by their foreign born parents… And many of them simply do not fit into American society, and do things that piss off actual Americans, commit crimes, have weird habits, etc etc etc.

        It’s all fucking annoying. Personally I just don’t see international freedom of movement as a right. And letting in too many shitty, low skill foreigners, and making my like more annoying, jacking my taxes, etc pisses me off.

        We need to slow down on all immigration, but mostly just cut off unskilled immigration completely. I think most people will eventually be able to fit in OKAY, but perpetually keeping this shit on overdrive will just keep the problems being perpetual. We’ll have 4th generation Mexicans bitching about all the stupid fucking Kenyans in 50 years if we’re still at these high foreign born rates then… Hell, I’m part beaner myself and I don’t even like the recent Hispanic immigrants much because of all the problems they create! And they’re probably some of our BEST low skill immigrants, ones from even jankier places are even worse.

  5. The only cost to society is the welder who cannot work.

    The welder who can work now has income. He uses the income to buy food from the local restaurant or market. The shopkeeper buys more food from the farmer to meet the increased demand. The farmer because of more business invests in new farm equipment to increase production. The farm equipment manufacturer needs more welders…

    My simplistic take on economics.

    1. The problem is that labor is also subject to the laws of supply and demand.

      A million refugees get jobs, they either take away jobs from native workers, or they drive down the cost of labor. So instead of making refugees wealthy, it makes workers poor.

      And that doesn’t address the cultural issues. What if most the new workers don’t speak the language? What if they want to change the laws of the country to reflect the laws of the home they fled, and are the direct cause of that home country turning into a hellhole

      1. Production and demand are not distinct. Money is irrelevant.

        It is a mistake to think of one or the other as fixed.

        If what you are saying is true it would make sense to greatly expand the welfare state. Say I am making 100k because of a shortage of workers with my skills. I would pay an extra 10k to keep people out of work rather than allow them to enter the job market and only make 80k. Which is kinda what happens anyway, most people would rather sit on their butts all day.

        Not only that but keeping the labor market artificially low and wages high only distorts the value of goods and services produced. This makes it more difficult to compete with producers who do not have such distortions. The pot industry is a good example. Legal sellers subject to restrictions and taxes have a hard time competing with illegal growers who can sell cheaper.

      2. The other fallacy your argument falls into is schroedingers immigrant. On one hand immigrants are going to take our jobs away. On the other hand they have a language barrier which makes them unsuitable to possibly take my job away.

        In the case of Kenya the refugees are already there and soaking up resources rather than producing and contributing to economic growth. The author gives specific examples of Kenya importing workers because of a labor shortage.

  6. It’s funny how you ignore the root cause of all this – radical islam. Importing Islamists is not going to improve the host countries, it’s going to make them into chaotic hellholes

    1. Once again you contradict your own logic.

      The Somali refugees are there because they fled a war caused by Islamic extremists. Now what do you think happens when you force them to live in squalor without adequate food or opportunity to work? The AlShabab recruiter comes around and makes an offer, that’s what happens. They have jobs.

      How do you think ISIS recruited? They promised money, women, a virtual paradise to come there. They could pretty much deliver on that for awhile.

      1. “The Somali refugees are there because they fled a war caused by a different more powerful sect of Islamic extremists than them”


        1. A lot of them. Not sects exactly, factions controlled by different warlords. It is not really a religious war. Al Shabab the AQ offshoot got there late to the party. They are more about religious extremism.

  7. Really great information. I always love to read and spread this kind of information that is unique and really informative. Keep up the good work.
    The Soft Logix offers complete IT solutions.

  8. Well said. Indeed, nowadays all great entrepreneurs are people who are familiar with risk, who know and are able to take risks. But the fact is that not all are born great entrepreneurs, there are people who need a system. I’m talking about the federal sector. Such people need special cliches and tips even in employment: USAjobs site,the ATS-solving system like A person who has lived all his life in this system is difficult to master innovations and take risks. Good or bad, but I myself belong to such people.

  9. All those damn racist Kenyans. Don’t they know they should just open their borders and take on all who want to come to their country and work? Asylum for all who can cross the imaginary line in the dirt! They will commit fewer crimes than the native Kenyans and will be a net economic positive?

    It’s just so racist to think otherwise.

  10. Here’s the thing you Cosmotarians don’t want to accept:

    NOBODY cares about overall GDP. The real question is are the immigrants lower productivity, shittier people than the people in the host country… If so, the natives won’t like the shitty people moving in, because it makes their nation shittier on average. PERIOD. That’s it.

    Most low skill immigrants in America make America shittier. Then people wonder why people don’t love low skill immigrants. Notice how nobody ever bitches about Asian immigrants? It’s because they’re awesome, other than their politics.

    This is a perfect example since it’s 2 African nations, one that kinda has their shit together, and the other being a disaster. Kenyans ARE worse off for letting in the Somalis. Just as the US would be.

    The best thing for Kenya to have done would have been to not let the fuckers in. The 2nd best thing would be to let them completely integrate in and force assimilation, as then they wouldn’t be a burden at least. Does Kenya have a welfare state for citizens? I dunno, but they could potentially be a drag even if they let them participate in society if they mooch off welfare.

    Immigration is either a practical thing, or it is a moral thing. I do not accept that immigration is a moral right, therefore all your bullshit touchy feely crap holds no sway. Low skill immigrants make countries worse, this is why people don’t like them… It’s a rational decision. Deal with it you douchey Cosmotarians!

  11. I like the valuable info in your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I”ll learn plenty of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.