Refugee education in Kenya: Language and encampment policies

By Meredith Saucier*

The focus of my group’s research has been the quality of refugee education in Kenya, both in the urban Nairobi context and at Kakuma refugee camp, keeping in mind two key government policies that affect education quality: the language policy and the refugee encampment policy. As part of this research, we also analyzed data from an IRC-led study that included class observations and interviews with teachers, pupils, and key informants in Kakuma camp and Nairobi. The preliminary findings from this analysis revealed that many organizations are working to improve education quality at both the urban and camp levels, and that they simultaneously collaborate with the Government of Kenya (GoK) and also attempt to address the challenges that may stem from the GoK’s language and encampment policies.

In order to further the discussion of the organizations at work in Nairobi and Kakuma, I would like to introduce the language and encampment policies in Kenya. In brief, GoK’s language policy as outlined in the Constitution of Kenya is that Kiswahili and English are the official languages and should be taught in schools. As a result of this policy, English is heavily valued. GoK’s encampment policy as outlined in the Refugee Act of 2006 dictates that refugees should reside in camps and that they must be documented and registered. Though urban refugee settlement has been tolerated, the GoK’s policy is still one of refugee encampment.

Kakuma Refugee Camp

There are many organizations at work in Kakuma that maintain varied relationships with the GoK. First and foremost, UNHCR, as the international body mandated to work with refugees, is the only agency mandated to administer Kakuma. UNHCR has partnered with numerous organizations for program implementation at the camp level. These organizations include World Food Program (WFP), Windle Trust International (WTI), Lutheran World Foundation (LWF) and Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). The latter 3 organizations (WTI, LWF, JRS) were frequently cited in our data as implementers of education programs in Kakuma.

WTI provides teacher training, scholarships, English language training including proficiency certification and TOEFL testing, and girls’ education promotion through programming and teacher recruitment. WTI is committed to partnering with UNHCR to improve the quality of education in Kakuma, and also meets monthly with other implementing partners and the GoK. The Department of Refugee Affairs and the MoE must also give permission to implement programs in Kakuma, keeping implementing organizations accountable to GoK policies.

JRS implements five programs in Kakuma, including for child protection, disability inclusion, English training for teachers, scholarships and online teacher education. The JRS makes it a goal to not duplicate programs in Kakuma and offers only services that other organizations are not, though they also collaborate with partners on some programs. As UNHCR is the managing agency at Kakuma, JRS implements according to UNHCR’s global education policy and also works closely with the GoK and its policies.

LWF was the original implementing organization in Kakuma prior to UNHCR’s absorption of operations. Currently LWF runs multiple programs in Kakuma, including a school meals program, scholarships, child protection, teacher training, inclusion activities, and supplies donation. They also operate several primary and secondary schools. LWF follows UNHCR’s education strategy as well as the GoK policies. LWF also works closely with the MoE and follows the Kenyan curriculum.


In the urban context of Nairobi, UNHCR is the primary agency providing services to refugees. UNHCR’s work in Nairobi is guided by the 2009 UNHCR Urban Refugee policy, which committed the agency to “examine, understand and respond to the needs of refugees living in the Kenyan capital”. UNHCR has been able to raise refugee student enrollment rates, coordinate with Nairobi NGOs and CBOs, build a system in which refugees and asylees can be documented and registered in urban areas, and has provided education services in urban schools, such as English classes.

The primary challenge of offering services in Nairobi as compared to Kakuma is that urban refugees are more dispersed, making it more difficult for UNHCR to locate and implement programs for potential beneficiaries. To accomplish their mandate, UNHCR has partnered with NGOs and the refugee community to improve UNHCR’s access and reach in the urban refugee community. One powerful example of UNHCR’s successful partner-building is a coalition the agency formed with the City Education Department that led to a spike in refugee enrolment at the primary level. UNHCR also convened two inter-agency working groups that advocated for refugees’ access to primary education and the completion of the Refugee Act of 2006. UNHCR has formed strong relationships with NGOs and CBOs in Nairobi, allowing them to offer services to hard-to-reach beneficiaries via their collaborative strategy.

Though UNHCR has been implementing the UNHCR urban refugee policy in Nairobi, and found support in the Mayor of Nairobi as well as other local government actors, the GoK has not formally endorsed the policy nor agreed to its implementation. In a 2011 review of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy implementation, however, it was noted that the Kenyan government seemed to be taking “a number of steps” that align with UNHCR’s policy which may signal a change of perception on the case of urban refugees in Nairobi. Though this is a positive sign, it cannot go unmentioned that in December of 2012 the Kenyan government released a renewed encampment directive ordering all urban refugees to relocate to refugee camps. The GoK suspended refugee and asylee registration following the announcement, and refugees reported police harassment and detention. Ultimately, the refugee community petitioned the directive and it was later rejected in Kenya’s High Court. Though this is a victory for urban and camp-based refugees alike, it remains to be seen how committed the GoK will be toward both protecting the rights of refugees and asylees in urban areas and working toward policies to ease the burden of the ballooning Kakuma refugee population, which surpassed its 100,000 person capacity in 2012 and continues to grow.

Across these urban and camp-based programs are common ties: a focus on English instruction, including teacher training so that teachers may effectively teach English to their refugee students, and particularly in Kakuma, a struggle to meet growing class sizes with both limited supplies and poor teacher to student ratios. These programs suggest that organizations are finding ways to salve the challenges of education provision that arise from GoK’s language and encampment policies, especially considering the challenges that come with implementing in Kakuma, a setting that was initially meant to be a short-term solution and is now moving into more than two decades of operation.

*Meredith Saucier is a Masters student in the International Educational Development program and a student in the Globalization, Migration, and Education Fall 2013 course.

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