Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. © Carl Court / Reuters


As I watched British Prime Minister David Cameron declare this week, after finally agreeing to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, that this demonstrated his country’s “extraordinary compassion”, I had to stop myself mid-sneer. After all, I live in Kenya, which has received more than 600,000 refugees in recent times.

Since long before independence, South Sudan has been a fiery warzone. The same applies to Somalia since the ousting of President Siad Barre in the early 1990s. Uganda has experienced instability, mass killings and a number of military dictatorships.

Rwanda underwent the genocide in 1994 and has had bouts of instability. The eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo is a perennial conflict area. Ethiopia hasn’t been spared its share of conflict, from the coup by Mengistu in 1960 until the elections in 1995.

Each of these factors have contributed, and still contribute, to a massive influx of refugees into the one country that has managed to stay stable for most of that time, Kenya. For a long time, it hosted the highest number of refugees in Africa.

Now it is second only to Ethiopia, but even then, its ratio of citizens to refugees of 70 to 1 still dwarfs Ethiopia’s 140 to 1 and remains one of the highest in the world.

The figure is even more impressive in comparison to the United Kingdom, which, for every refugee it hosts, has 319 citizens. The UK’s showing pales even further in light of the fact that its nominal GDP is more than 20 times the size of Kenya’s.

How Kenya copes with refugees

Granted, a large number of the refugees in Kenya are still hosted in camps and are largely kept out of the country’s daily life by a government policy which limits their physical movement and doesn’t grant most of them work permits.

Every now and then, especially since the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, violence breaks out in the camps and there have been incidences of xenophobic attacks and arbitrary arrests, mostly targeting Somali refugees living in Nairobi’s sprawling Eastleigh estate, home to a large number of the country’s own ethnic Somali citizens, who also bear the brunt of such injustices.

This is mostly because Somalia, where they come from, hosts the jihadist movement Al-Shabaab, which carried out the mall attack and has particularly menaced Kenya in the recent past. Plans for resettlement in other countries handle only a small portion of the refugees every year.

But for the most part, most refugees in Kenya have a reprieve from the wars and conflicts which drove them from their countries in the first place, and the chance of a new life after a long wait, which can stretch up to 17 years at the Kakuma camp, according to the UNHCR.

The refugees in Kenyan camps are taken care of largely by international charity organisations under the leadership of the UNHCR, with a little help from the Kenyan government. Plans are underway for the government to take over the management of the camps eventually.

A large number of the refugees somehow find their way into the fabric of Kenyan society and fashion new lives in the country’s cities and towns, even gaining an education with the citizens, like my three South Sudanese classmates at the University of Nairobi.

Some are repatriated to their countries when stability is regained, as has been the case with most Ugandans and Rwandese. In 2013, Somalia and Kenya agreed on a plan for voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in Kenya, most of whom reside at the Daadab camp in North Eastern Kenya.

When South Sudan gained independence in 2009 and there was hope that peace would finally return, many refugees went back into the country. Of course, that hope was shattered by a resumption of hostilities which has seen even more South Sudanese refugees escape back into Kenya.

Europe, follow Germany’s lead!

Seeing the confusion reigning in Europe regarding how to handle the current refugee crisis, the average Kenyan would either sneer and castigate Europe for being the ultimate cause of the crisis, or struggle to comprehend its unfounded unease with its visitors.

But neither of these reactions would penetrate the reason for Europe’s lingering reluctance, with the exception of Germany, to accept the large numbers of asylum seekers and other migrants still expected to storm its borders in the coming months.

David Cameron’s commitment to 20,000 over five years is something, sure, but compared to Germany’s plan to take in almost a million refugees, the fact that it took in over 20,000 refugees last weekend, and its citizen to refugee ratio of 144 to 1, and you see that it is not enough, not even close.

Nor does the UK plan say anything of the refugees who linger in makeshift camps near Calais in the hope of a breakthrough in their quest to get to the island. If the UK is a country of extraordinary compassion in this regard, I don’t know how I would describe Kenya, let alone Germany.

France is no better, and the Anglo-French media’s chest-thumping of their countries’ newfound generosity is really out of place in our post-Aylan Kurdi world. Describing 20,000 as tens of thousands is grammatically correct, but the context belittles the number.

These countries, and others in Europe, can do more because, though they are just pulling out of a debilitating depression, refugees aren’t an indefinite economic burden; in fact, their stagnating populations need the boost the refugees will bring. Countries with fewer resources, like Turkey and Kenya, are already doing way more. The most compelling reason for greater generosity, however, is that refugees are people, like us, as CNN’s Becky Anderson insisted during Aylan’s funeral last week.

Kenya isn’t an economic heaven for refugees. Neither is it for most of its citizens. But it is doing something about refugees, offering them a refuge from the factors that force them to leave their own countries. And that’s a fact on which Kenya cannot be faulted.

Either Europe steps forward with bolder plans to handle the refugees knocking at its doors, who will not stop coming unless their own countries are made suitable for living in overnight, or this episode will go down in history as one of its many colossal failures.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya. 

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.