Updated May 2015

Key mixed migration characteristics

Kenya is a critical hub for mixed migration in the region. It is primarily a country of destination and transit for hundreds of thousands of people in the regional mixed migration flow, but is also to a more limited degree a country of origin for some migrants. The highly porous border that Kenya shares with Somalia, Ethiopia and Southern Sudan, has long served as a convenient entry and exit point for migration flows, and continues to do so whether the borders are officially open or closed. The Kenyan military operation in South-Central Somalia in the later part of 2011 has resulted in tightened border control and a decreased number of Somalis crossing into Kenya via this entry point.

Mixed migration cases include forced migrants, involuntary migrants, economic migrants and bona-fide refugees particularly from South-Central Somalia. Some areas of northern Kenya face unique migration challenges due to the presence of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda. These regions have traditionally experienced cross-border migration by pastoralists; however, intensified climate change and environmental degradation have contributed to increased frequency of migration, variation from traditional migration routes and increased distance of migration. At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation have contributed to resource-based conflicts between and among pastoralist communities living in proximity to the borders.

According to UNHCR statistics, the current refugee and asylum seeker population in Kenya is 584,989 (as of March 2015) with over 70% coming from Somalia.  In November 2013, a Tripartite Agreement was signed by the Governments of Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR governing the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in Kenya. On 8th December 2014, the pilot six-month phase returns project kicked off targeting 10,000 refugee returns to three areas in South Central Somalia: Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayo, As of March 2015, a total of 2,049 individuals had voluntarily returned to Somalia under this project Kenya is a regional hub for smuggling and the obtaining of false documentation necessary for creating new identities or visas. Many Ethiopians and Somalis enter as irregular migrants and settle in parts of Nairobi with the intention of looking for work and / or moving on to other countries. In 2009 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that some 20,000 Somali and Ethiopian male migrants are smuggled to South Africa, mostly via Kenya every year.

The U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report 2014  states that Kenya is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children for the purposes of forced labor and sex trafficking. This is corroborated by the Kenyan Government which published the country’s first Migration Profile in March 2015 citing Kenya as a major regional hub for trafficking in persons[1].  Kenya is also a country of internal forced migration with thousands of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) especially following the 2007-8 post- election violence and other prior inter-ethnic clashes which led to the displacement, reportedly, of over 300,000 people according to estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. There is no official, comprehensive, up-to-date national data on IDPs in the country.

Economic migrants from Kenya are also found in the mixed migration flow to the Gulf countries specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Agencies based in Nairobi recruit young Kenyans with promise of better pay. Press reports indicate that upon arrival, their passports are confiscated and the promised job may not necessarily have the same terms agreed upon, they are allegedly being forced into domestic servitude upon arrival.  They further complain of being subjected to serious violations such as sexual harassment, violence, torture, starvation and other cruel and degrading treatment. It is not clear how many people are affected by these activities which appear to be related to various labour violations bordering on trafficking. Following these reports of abuse, between 2012 and 2014, the government revoked the licenses of 930 agencies recruiting Kenyans to work in the Middle East and announced a temporary ban of the recruitment of workers to the region.

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Kenya

Under the Refugee Act 2006, the Department for Refugee Affairs under the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons has the overall responsibility for all administration, coordination and management of refugee matters. Two refugee camps, Kakuma in North West of Kenya and Dadaab in the North East, host the largest number of refugees in Kenya.  The Government of Kenya has directed that refugees must reside in designated camps to qualify for assistance. Kenya considers itself as only a country of asylum for as long as a refugee has a mandate or is in the process of acquiring or renewing one. South Sudanese and Somalis, with the exception of those from Somaliland and Puntland, are granted prima facie refugee status.

The total refugee population hosted in Kenya as of March 2015, is approximately 549,733[2] .

Country of Origin

Registered Refugees







DR Congo








South Sudan






Source: UNHCR

Main drivers and motivation for migration

Mixed migration in Kenya has been characterized by the influx of Somalis, Ethiopians and South-Sudanese since the early 1990s, when all three regions were either in state of conflict and/or experiencing drought/famine. Most who came then were bona fide refugees being accepted on a prima facie basis; the rising number of Somalis refugees remains the key characteristic. The 2011 drought-triggered famine in the Horn of Africa and the intervention by the combined African military force, AMISOM, to eject the Al Shabaab militant group from Somalia also resulted in an influx of refugees in from Somalia to Kenya.

The recent trends include a high number of economic migrants, reflecting a growing aspiration of many in the region to find a better life outside their country but it also reflects the extent to which public officials may be colluding with and facilitating smugglers, traffickers and individuals seeking to bend or break national laws.

As of 2014, Kenya had an estimated country population of 43.1million according to the UN Department on Economic and Social Affairs.   Having a significantly better poverty ranking than most of its neighbours, makes it an attractive destination and transit country for those in mixed migration. Kenya’s poverty level index was assessed to have a Multidimensional Index % of 0.229 and a Human Development Index of 0.535, ranking Kenya number 145 out of 187 countries. (UNDP; 2014 Report Human Development Statistical Tables)

As a country of mixed migration origin

To a limited degree Kenya is also a country of origin. However, for those Kenyans who do leave the country, the push and pull factors are different than for migrants in neighbouring countries. Most of the Kenyan emigrants are skilled and well-educated, leaving Kenya through legal channels (at least initially) to seek training or work in different countries including Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, and also further afield in the USA, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. The exact figures vary according to different sources. The World Bank estimated the number of Kenyan emigrants in 2010 to be approximately 457,100, or 1.1% of the total Kenyan population.

On the African continent, most Kenyans migrate to Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Nigeria.  Significant numbers have moved to the United Kingdom, Europe and North America countries in search of better opportunities. The majority of Kenyan emigrants, except for those in the Middle East, are professionals, technicians and business people. The Middle East and the Gulf region are also key labour destination regions for Kenyan unskilled migrant workers. Kenyan authorities estimated the number of Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf Region to be 100,000 as of November 2014.

As a country of mixed migration destination

Most of those entering Kenya are escaping harsh, oppressive and undesirable conditions elsewhere (primarily Ethiopia and Somalia). A majority seek refuge in Kenya while an unknown, but estimated significant number, use the country as a point of transit en route to the South or North. Kenya hosts one of the largest Somali refugee populations in the world. Somalis have been granted prima facie refugee status since the early 1990s. Recently there have been calls by the Government of Kenya for the relocation of Somali refugees back to Somalia. Public opinion since 2012 has shifted following a spate of terrorist attacks on civilians. In 2015, following over 150 fatalities after an attack on Garissa University College in North-Eastern Kenya carried out by the militant Al-Shabaab group, Kenyan authorities reiterated calls for the closure of Dadaab refugee camp and repatriation of refugees to Somalia, alleging that the camp was a support and recruitment base for terrorists[3]. On 11th April 2015, the country’s Deputy President issued an ultimatum to the UNHCR to shut down Dadaab refugee camp near the border with Somalia within three months. Covering more than 50 square kilometers, Dadaab is Kenya’s largest refugee camp hosting 224,884 refugees which made up 38% of refugees hosted in Kenya as at March 2015. The government also announced that it would begin construction of a wall its border with Somalia with the intent to keep out irregular migrants and Al-Shabaab militia from inside Somalia. In May 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr António Guterres visited Kenya to hold discussions with Government officials over the planned closures. One of the outcomes was that Kenyan government officials gave assurances that the planned return of the Somali refugees to Somalia would be done in the spirit of the tripartite agreement and there will be no forceful return. The Government of Kenya and UNHCR also agreed on an enhanced security system for Dadaab area and to raise resources to ensure that the camp remains secure. It was also agreed that the voluntary repatriation programme would be enhanced by increasing the number of return stations from the current three to a total of eight.

In addition to Somalis, Kenya also hosts a large Ethiopian refugee population, mainly from the Oromia and Ogaden regions which border Kenya. Large numbers of undocumented Ethiopians also live in Kenya. Until the recent repatriation of the South-Sudanese, Kenya also provided refuge to a large population of this group. Concluding from this, Kenya’s relatively stable and less oppressive regime (that reportedly turns a blind eye to many irregular migrants), porous border and strategic location in the Horn of Africa make it an attractive country of destination.

As a country of mixed migration transit

Kenya attracts heterogeneous migration flows due to its location, relatively developed infrastructure, good air and land connections, large migrant communities and well-connected smuggling networks[4]. For these reasons, Kenya is not only a country of destination but also, increasingly, a country of transit. In particular, the open and porous borders between Somalia and Kenya, spanning around 700 km in total, enable thousands of asylum seekers and irregular migrants to enter Kenya. Most transit migrants are of Somali, Eritrean or Ethiopian origin, fleeing political insecurity in their home countries. They often use Kenya as a transit country to South Africa.

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

Somalis, Ethiopians, and to some extent Southern Sudanese, who come from bordering countries, take advantage of Kenya’s porous border, crossing into the country either on their own accord or facilitated by smugglers and/or brokers. They travel on foot, or use vehicles between the countries. The populations living at the borders often share a common culture and language, as well as trade links between themselves, making these crossings easier but particularly in Ethiopia and Somalia, the number of brokers/smugglers offering to manage migrants’ journeys are high.

 There have been instances of some migrants ‘buying’ their passage on private cargo planes (usually carrying khat) from South-Central Somalia to Kenya. Those migrants handled by smugglers and leaving Kenya for Southern Africa frequently use vehicles and boats to get to Tanzania as their first leg of their journey south.

Smuggling networks also reportedly operate out of refugee camps and in Nairobi. Refugees are able to travel out of the camps with or without the official movement passes issued by the Kenyan Department of Refugees Affairs. Some refugees pay organised smugglers to transport them to Nairobi, either by covert routes or with the collusion of bribed police officers. Others reported that they paid public officials or police to escort them along these routes.[5]

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Kenya

Although Kenya hosts over half a million refugees, the conditions in the refugee camps are not ideal with overcrowding common and a strict encampment policy. In most cases the displacement is protracted and refugees can expect to remain in the camps for long periods without the opportunity to access higher education, travel, employment or to start businesses.

 Migrant smuggling is an important component of mixed migration flows through Kenya. Given Kenya’s geographical location in the region, permeable borders and relatively ineffectual efforts to control borders and regulate migrant movement, its role as a point of transit for both the Northern and Southern routes is of high importance. In addition, corruption makes Kenya a popular transit country for smugglers who are reported to bribe security and border officials to allow passage. There is an experienced network of brokers in Kenya, specialising in assisting Somalis to organise their departure from Kenya to another destination.[6] The International Peace Institute (IPI) labelled migrant smuggling and women/children trafficking networks – mainly Somali and Kenyan - as one of the three most prominent groups of African criminal networks in East Africa.

Because of the reportedly significant numbers trafficked and smuggled through Kenya, it is clear that vulnerable groups, especially women and children are at risk of physical and sexual abuse and extortion. The US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons reports states that children in Kenyan refugee camps are vulnerable to sex trafficking endure sex trafficking, while others are taken outside the camps and forced to work on tobacco farms[7].

This is a regular cross-cutting element in these kinds of situations. Those that cross the porous border are often harassed by the Kenyan police who extort bribes even from those who would qualify as bona-fide refugees such as Somalis to whom a prima-facie status is accorded. These individuals have to, in some cases, make long journeys on foot through harsh climates. In Somalia they also risk being caught up in the conflict between the Al-Shabaab militia and the Kenya Defence Forces which has been active in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) since the latter part of 2011.

Detention of Migrants

The primary policy response to irregular migration from the Kenyan authorities has been the arrest of detected irregular migrants. Under Kenya’s 2011 Citizenship and Immigration Act, a migrant who unlawfully enters or is unlawfully present in the country commits a criminal offence. If convicted, the penalty may involve a fine (of up to USD 5,500) or imprisonment (of up to 3 years), or both. Importantly, this rule does not apply to newly arrived asylum-seekers. Under the Act, irregular migrants may also be detained in police custody, prison or immigration holding facilities pending their deportation.

In addition to routine arrests and detention of irregular migrants in Kenya, authorities have on several occasions in recent years carried out mass arrests, detention and deportation of migrants and refugees as part of security operations. These arrests and deportations are carried out in an ad hoc manner on the basis of ‘Executive orders’ and usually in response to a security crisis such as terror attacks. In the summer of 2012, Kenyan authorities announced the ‘Fagia Wageni’ (‘Do away with/ get rid of the foreigners’) operation, intended to round up irregular migrants in the country. The Kenyan authorities subsequently carried out two raids in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi. UNHCR and partners estimated that approximately 100 migrants were arrested and brought before the courts.

In April 2014, Operation Usalama Watch (Peace Watch) was introduced following grenade and gun attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi by unknown perpetrators in March 2014 that killed 12 people and injured scores of others. Kenyan authorities announced close to 4,000 arrests as a result. Individuals who were arrested were typically held until authorities screened them to establish whether they were regular or irregular migrants, in what leading human rights organisations alleged was a slow and nontransparent process. UNHCR reported that it had been denied access to persons detained by Kenyan authorities. After screening, detainees were charged with unlawful presence, deported, released, or ordered to relocate to refugee camps. Two weeks after the operation began, Kenyan authorities announced the detention and deportation of over 500 persons. Human Rights Watch reported several cases of abuse, unsanitary detention conditions, insufficient food and extortion faced by individuals detained.

RMMS research also shows that that migrants in Kenya face multiple detention in several ways. For example, they are arrested several times during their journey because they do not have proper documentation or they are released from prison only to end up imprisoned again because there are no deportation / repatriation systems in place. Migrants also face the risk of multiple detentions between countries. Often migrants are deported to the nearest point of entry where, after crossing the border, they are re-arrested. When migrants are arrested, the usual process in Kenya is for them to spend one or two nights in a police cell before they are charged and sentenced to prison (for example, for two months). In some cases this cycle repeats itself before their eventual repatriation. Usually migrants are handed over to an immigration officer after they serve their sentence. The immigration officer has to detain the migrants until repatriation is arranged. However, migrants often end up in police cells, where they usually have to wait for a long time before repatriation. This has to do with the lack of financial resources for quick and efficient repatriation.

Despite scattered information on such separate incidents comprehensive data on the number of migrants in detention in Kenya, as in other countries, is not collated. There are no ready statistics of migrants in Kenyan prisons, as there is no categorisation of foreigners in the Kenyan judicial system and no database with numbers publicly released. Data is especially limited for crucial areas of the country, such as the North Eastern Province, where it is likely that many asylum seekers and irregular migrants are detected while, or shortly after, crossing the Somali-Kenya border. In March 2015 for example, 148 refugees/irregular migrants were held in two detention centres in Garissa County. The individuals had been arrested around Garissa town and charged with the offence of unlawful presence outside the designated camp areas. More recently there have been multiple incidents in which (mainly) Ethiopian migrants were arrested and detained in Kenya, implying a potential increase in the number of Ethiopians traveling south through Kenya on their way to South Africa. Between January and February 2015, 127 Ethiopian migrants en route to South Africa were reported by media to have been detained.

Responses by Authorities

One of the challenges in mixed migration and refugee protection in Kenya is the failure by law enforcement officers to distinguish between criminals, irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Some reasons for the arrest and detention of refugees by Kenyan police stems from ignorance of the correct procedures and ineffective application of refugee law. A 2014 report by Refugee International described the “increased levels of abuse, extortion, and harassment by the Kenyan police on refugees and irregular migrants.” 

Kenya’s law provides that asylum seekers have a period of 30 days once they have crossed the border to get to a registration point. For most refugees coming from Somalia, this registration point will be the Dadaab refugee camps in north-eastern Kenya, but some make their way directly to urban centres including the capital, Nairobi. Because those seeking protection usually cross the border without documentation, it is not easy for the police to know how long they have been in the country. Many of the police have insufficient training on refugee matters and are not familiar with refugee law. They are often not able to conduct proper interviews (which is compounded by language barriers) with migrants to assess whether they entered the country as an economic migrant or asylum seeker. This can lead to asylum-seekers being categorized as economic migrants. If migrants are arrested they are brought to court, which usually happens fast. However, there is also a lack of adequately trained interpreters in the courts. As a result, migrants often do not understand the charges against them, and they might accept the charges without properly understanding them, or, misconstrue the judicial officer’s questions. Irregular immigration either attracts a fine or a custodial sentence of up to 3 years. Fines can be high, with some irregular migrants fined between USD 1,125 and 2,250.

Apart from these procedural gaps, there have been numerous reports of police harassment and abuse of migrants and refugees. Human rights organisations allege that many of those crossing into Kenya from Somalia experience harassment near the border by Kenyan police, who extort bribes from migrants. Apart from cases of bribery, some faced detention and deportation

National immigration laws and policies

Kenya has ratified the 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. In addition, Kenya has ratified other international instruments protecting human rights, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The following legislation is of particular importance in the area of mixed migration:

·         International conventions: Kenya is a party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol, the OAU Refugee Convention and the Palermo Protocols. Kenya did not sign the Kampala Convention or the Migrant Workers Convention.

·         National legislation (immigration): The Citizenship and Immigration Act (2011) addresses all matters of migration and citizenship, in line with the new Constitution and ratified international conventions.  The Kenya Citizens and Foreign Nationals Management Service Act (2011) established the Kenya Citizens and Foreign Nationals Management Service, which is responsible for the administration of the laws relating to (among other areas) registration of citizens, immigration and refugees.

·         National legislation (asylum): The Refugee Act 2006 and the associated The Refugee (Reception, Registration and Adjudication) Regulations, 2009, categorise refugees as either statutory or prima facie. With regard to statutory refugees, it adopts the definition from the 1951 Convention with the addition of sex as a ground for persecution. The act established the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) within the Ministry of Immigration, replacing the Refugee Secretariat previously set up under the Ministry of Home Affairs. As of 31st March 2015, the 2011 Refugees Bill – the successor to the Refugee Act 2006 - is under consideration. In 2014, Kenya passed the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 which amongst other things, amended the 2006 Refugee Act in two vital ways: it sought to limit the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the country to 150,000, and it further enforced an encampment policy, limiting refugees to the country’s two sprawling, remote camps in Dadaab and Kakuma. Civil society organisations contested this new law and the Kenya High Court, in February 2015 nullified the provision on the ceiling of 150,000 refugees but upheld the provisions on encampment ruling that that they do not violate freedom of movement as envisaged under the Constitution

·         National legislation (internal displacement): The Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities (IDP Act) provides a comprehensive approach to addressing internal displacement caused by conflict, other forms of violence, natural disasters and development projects, irrespective of the location and tribal affiliation of IDPs. The IDP act outlines the institutional framework, roles and responsibilities for state and non-state parties.[8] The Ministry of State for Special Programmes (MoSSP) was designated as the institutional focal point, including for the resettlement of IDPs and the coordination of disaster risk reduction programmes.[9]

·         National legislation (smuggling and trafficking): The Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act came into force in 2012 and lays down stringent punishments for those involved in such crimes. According to the act, offences include the promotion of trafficking, acquisition of travel documents by fraud or misrepresentation, facilitation of entry into or exit from Kenya, interference with documents and travel effects, and trafficking in persons for organised crime. Victims of trafficking shall, according to Section 14, not be criminally liable for any offence related to being in Kenya illegally or any act that was a direct result of being trafficked.[10]                                                                                                                  

Government policy

Trafficking: Despite passing the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act, the US Department of State places the Government of Kenya on its Tier 2 Watch List for a number of reasons:[11]

·        Limited prosecution of traffickers:  Though the State department noted that the Kenyan government maintained modest anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, corruption and lack of understanding of human trafficking issues among police and other public officials continued to prevent trafficking offenders, including those involved in fraudulent recruitment for overseas employment, from being brought to justice. In addition to this, the police force remained without sufficient resources to enforce the Counter-Trafficking Act.  

·         Ongoing official complicity in human trafficking: Kenya has yet to take meaningful action against the active involvement of some law enforcement officials in trafficking.[12] Corruption or complicity by officials makes it easy for trafficking agents and unsuspecting victims to obtain travel documents, including registration of false marriages, to aid acquisition of passports.[13]

·         Inadequate coordination, protection and assistance. The government failed ‘to fully enact its anti-trafficking law’s implementing regulations, finalise its national plan of action, provide shelter and other protective services for adult victims, take concrete action against alleged incidents of child sex tourism, monitor the work of overseas labour recruitment agencies, or provide adequate anti-trafficking training to its officials, including diplomats, police, labour inspectors, and children’s officers. In addition, though the government set up the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Advisory Committee in 2013 to oversee the implementation of this law, the body has not yet met and failed to coordinate any government efforts.[14]

Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments in the country’s anti-trafficking framework. With regard to trafficking of children, for example, the US Department of State concluded that Kenya had taken significant steps in enacting programs to help victims, both physiologically and in the provision of legal representation. The government’s children’s officers made efforts to identify and protect trafficked children throughout the country. A study commissioned by SIDA also concluded that ‘the legal and policy framework with regard to child rights in Kenya has improved tremendously in recent years’.[15]The Ministry of Gender and a local NGO jointly operate a national 24-hour toll-free hotline for reporting cases of child trafficking, labour and abuse.



[1] Migration in Kenya: A Country Profile 2015

[2] UNHCR February 2015 Kenya Factsheet. Available http://www.unhcr.org/524d84b99.html

[3]  Daily Nation, Refugees are victims of violence too, so they need our protection, not rejection. Available at www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/Dadaab-Refugees-Repatriation-Terrorism/-/440808/2684570/-/oe31jj/-/index.html  Accessed on 14th April 2015

[4] RMMS, Mixed Migration in Kenya, p. 29

[5] RMMS, 2013 (a)

[6] Moret, J. Baglioni, S. and Efionayi-Mader, D. (2006). The Path of Somali Refugees into Exile. A Comparative Analysis of Secondary Movements and Policy Responses. Neuchatel: Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies.

[7] US Department of State, 2014, p.227

[8] IDMC, 2012, p. 8

[9] IDMC, 2012, p. 8.

[10] Ngunyi and Oucho, 2012, p. 89.

[11] US Department of State, 2014a, p.227

[12] US Department of State, 2012a, p.227

[13] Solidarity Center, 2007, p.13.

[14] US Department of State, 20142a, p.228

[15] Tostensen, Stokke, Trygged, and Halvorsen, 2011, p. 152.



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