Published on Africa Can End Poverty

After three decades, how are refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp faring?

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Many of you will be familiar with the Lost Boys of Sudan. Children, most as young as six or seven, who fleeing civil war some 30 years ago walked more than 1000 miles, with only half of them reaching Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. What happened to these refugees? How are they and other refugees fleeing war and conflict living in Kakuma today?

To understand this question, a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank joined forces, with support from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, to investigate the socio-economic outcomes of refugees compared to nationals. In Turkana County, where 40% of Kenya’s refugee population live, we  completed two household surveys of refugees living in the Kalobeyei settlement and the Kakuma camp, and a third one is underway for refugees in urban areas, including Nairobi.

Life in Kakuma Refugee Camp

Kakuma refugee camp is a home to 160,000 refugees (January 2021) from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Uganda. The camp is located in Turkana County, one of the poorest counties in Kenya. Many Turkana residents are pastoralists living semi-nomadic lifestyles, and most live in small huts in villages without running water or electricity. . Our study shows severe poverty and vulnerability for both hosts and refugees, making the case for targeted interventions to buffer livelihoods, improve human capital, and break the cycle of poverty across these communities. We found that 68% of Kakuma refugees and 65 percent of Kalobeyei refugees live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day (2011 PPP). Strikingly, the immediate surrounding host community in Turkana County is even more impoverished with 72% living in poverty. In comparison, 37% of Kenyans are poor at the national level. It is important to note though that the estimates for refugees are for 2018/19 while the estimates for hosts and national populations are based on a survey from 2015/16.

Poverty rate (US$ 1.90 per day, 2011 PPP)

The study also found that refugees who live in households headed by women are poorer than those who live in men-headed households. Not only does the poverty rate among refugees vary according to gender, but also by country of origin, and the date of displacement. Members of households that have been displaced since 2008 or before are less likely to be poor than those displaced in 2012–2014, while the poverty rate drops for those displaced since 2015 or later.

Opportunities for Skills and Jobs

Refugees have shockingly low levels of employment compared to the surrounding host community in Turkana county and wider Kenya. Of the working-age population some 20% of refugees are employed compared to 62% of Turkana residents and 71% across wider Kenya. Refugees have job-related skills that can be strengthened and matched to market and community needs, but they face restrictions to work and move within Kenya. Easing restrictions on refugees’ capacity to work and providing easy-to-access information can translate into increased participation in the labor market. Engaging the private sector can further enhance the labor market opportunities for both communities.

Education is key for younger generations to be able to access the labor market and obtain sustainable livelihoods. While primary education at 80% is comparable between refugees and nationals, though slightly lower  in Kalobeyei camp, only half of Turkana children attend primary education. Whilst transition into secondary education is a challenge nationally, it is even more so for refugees and Turkana children. In addition, camp-based schools face several challenges such as  overcrowded classes, lack of learning enablers such as electricity, water and sanitation, and inadequate number of  teachers, two-thirds of whom are unqualified but receiving training.

Primary and secondary school net attendance rates

The economic impact of COVID-19

The challenging socio-economic situation for refugees and host communities may have deepened even further due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shock, exacerbating the already extreme fragility of both populations. The World Bank’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Phone Survey finds much larger impacts of COVID-19 on the already more precarious employment situation for refugees combined with a slower recovery. In addition, impacts on education are expected to be more significant for refugees as they engaged less often in learning activities while schools were closed, exacerbating existing inequalities in education.

Effective policy planning and programming must be based on evidence for the socioeconomic conditions of refugees and host communities and the evolution of COVID-19 impacts. The Kakuma and Kalobeyei socioeconomic surveys provide this evidence to inform action. However, a more granular understanding how to achieve sustainable livelihoods for refugees and hosts will need more in-depth and frequent data over time. The World Bank and the UNHCR are working together to provide such data to help policy makers and organizations inform action that can significantly improve livelihoods for these populations.


Utz Pape

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

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