Surviving Africa

Approaching the UNHCR refugee camp at Kakuma, in far north-western Kenya, is a bit like flying across the hottest, driest stretch of the northern Mallee in the fifth year of a drought. Over 83,000 refugees from countries including Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi live here, fed—inadequately, at the moment—by the World Food Program, and provided with housing, sanitation, schooling and counselling by eight non-government agencies, all overseen by a UNHCR staff of around 60 people.

On my second day at Kakuma I met Yolande Floride, a refugee from Burundi in central Africa, who works for one of the non-government agencies in the camp. In a tiny brick office, she described to me her journey from Burundi to Kenya. As a Burundian, she is not typical of the refugees I spoke to at the camp, but her story echoes others I heard from refugees, many of whom have attempted, sometimes more than once, to return to their own countries before resigning themselves to camp life.

Yolande grew up in Ngozi province of Burundi, the daughter of a mixed Hutu-Tutsi marriage. In mid-1993 she finished high school and was expecting to go on to Bujumbura University, where her boyfriend was already studying. Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye from the Hutu majority, had just taken office after nearly three decades of recurring conflict within the country. The fact that he was identified as a Hutu was significant, for the Tutsi minority had dominated politics and the military since independence.

But, as Yolande points out, we need to be careful of talking about Tutsis and Hutus as if they are two quite distinct and identifiable ethnic groups. The distinction between Hutus and Tutsis was sharpened and reinforced as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy by the Belgians, who ruled Burundi until independence in 1962. Sometimes, says Yolande, the differences in appearance are so slight that thugs from either side identify you by the part of the country you come from. ‘People are being victims of where they are living,’ she says, ‘and when your parents are mixed, you are rejected by both sides.’
In October 1993, before university began, Burundi’s President Ndadaye was assassinated in an attempted military coup. Violence broke out across the country, with Tutsis living in Hutu areas especially vulnerable to reprisals. An estimated 50,000 people were killed.

Yolande decided it was safest to go to the town where her boyfriend was studying. ‘On the way I was met by a group of Hutus who were about to kill me, saying I was a Tutsi. I was rescued by my classmate, who tried to explain. Because he was easily identified as a Hutu, they believed him.’ She arrived at the university and waited for the academic year to begin. ‘I was hoping to do economics,’ she says, laughing, ‘but now I have no interest in economics!’

With the unrest continuing and no sign of classes beginning, Yolande and her boyfriend thought it safest to leave the country. They escaped to the Congo by bus, staying for two months with a Burundian parliamentarian in a town called Uvira. ‘But we saw it was difficult for him to look after us, so we thought it was safer to go to a refugee camp.’

The UNHCR had set up a camp at Luberizi, in the Congo, to house refugees from Rwanda—where the massacres had taken place in early 1994—and from Burundi. ‘I was working in the hospital, in charge of the medical store,’ says Yolande. ‘I had to go to an interview, show my school documents.’

With money, life was easier for Yolande and her boyfriend. ‘The environment was not like Kakuma, anyway. It rained! Movement was easier, and there was much more interaction with the citizens ... We could easily leave camp to go to town. We could work outside the camp.’ They stayed in the camp for over two years.

In October 1996, though, the camp was attacked, probably by Rwandans attempting to wipe out any groups of potential rebels near their border. Effectively, this was the beginning of the war in the Congo (involving local rebels backed by several governments in the region) which is only now being settled by the new Congolese president.

The camp was destroyed, and staff and refugees fled. Yolande and her boyfriend made the 100-kilometre walk back to Uvira. But after only five days, Uvira was attacked and again everyone had to flee. ‘Everybody was just running, because these people were destroying and occupying the country.’
‘It’s a very long story!’ she says, laughing, as I turn another page in my notebook.

Assuming she was one of the rebels, a group of Congolese captured her and threatened to kill her at nightfall. They stabbed her boyfriend in the back but he escaped and went for help. He found another Congolese leader, explained and gave him money, and Yolande was released. Under armed escort, the Rwandans and Burundians were sent back to their own countries.

After three months in a government-run camp in Burundi, where they realised they were still not safe, and another five months in Nairobi, Yolande and her boyfriend ended up at Kakuma. ‘I didn’t want to go to another refugee camp. That’s why we stayed five months in Nairobi. But the police were arresting refugees. They arrested my boyfriend and held him for ninety days. So that’s why we decided to go to the camp.’ It was September 1997.

Life was difficult for the two of them at Kakuma. They lived within the small Burundian community, but there were threats from other refugees who believed they were Tutsis. ‘Recently, they openly said we were sent by the government to finish them off. That was an allegation they took to the UNHCR. UNHCR tried to get a solution, but they couldn’t.’

Since last October Yolande and her boyfriend, now her husband, have lived in a tent in an open area away from other refugees because there’s no room in the camp’s small protection area, set up to house refugees at risk. Yolande hasn’t heard from other members of her family since 1994.

Kakuma is around 1200 kilometres from Nairobi, near Kenya’s border with Sudan. It is one of two large refugee camps set up under Kenya’s encampment program, intended to keep refugees out of Nairobi and other cities and towns.

When the camp was set up in 1992, the Kakuma township had a population of fewer than 7000, all of them members of the region’s Turkana group. The Turkana are still a mainly nomadic people, struggling to survive in this arid landscape where the daily maximum temperature is rarely below 36 and Ugandan and Sudanese cattle thieves attack from across the border. Not surprisingly, they were hostile towards the refugees to begin with (and some of that hostility remains) but their numbers in the town have increased to over 40,000 as a small, vigorous economy has grown up within and around the camp.

Of the camp’s 83,000 refugees, nearly 70 per cent of them are from Sudan—mainly from the south—with another 25 per cent from Somalia and smaller groups from countries including the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Most of the refugees live entirely on rations provided by the World Food Program, but in 2002 these provided an average of only 75 per cent of the recommended daily calorie intake. Since mid-February, rations are again at 75 per cent of the daily requirement, and a recent study found that more than 8000 of the children at the camp are malnourished, with thousands more in danger. Around the camp many of the refugees seem listless and ill, although the level of activity in the camp—a woman baking bread to sell, a man looking after his chooks, people walking from one part of the camp to another—is also striking.

A fortunate minority of the refugees have a family member among the 4000 or so who have jobs with the eight non-government aid organisations working at Kakuma. These ‘incentive workers’, who can’t be offered formal employment, are paid between 700 and 2000 Kenyan shillings a month (up to $A45). They can use their income to buy meat or vegetables, and a surprisingly diverse range of other goods, from tiny mudbrick shops, bars and restaurants set up by members of the various communities in the camp.

I drove through the Ethiopian market with Jose Kaippananickal, who runs vocational training and employment programs at Kakuma for Don Bosco. (Don Bosco was the 19th-century founder of the Salesian congregation, which works primarily with young people.) We had driven from the well-established areas around the Don Bosco offices and workshops in the middle of Kakuma, to the much newer section of the camp to the north, where row after row of small, identical mudbrick dwellings sit on a featureless expanse of baked earth. Here, because the building program has not kept pace with new arrivals, some families are living in plastic UNHCR tents, in unimaginable heat.

Br Jose, who grew up in the South Indian city of Kerala, joined the Salesians when he was 15, trained as an electrical engineer, then studied social work, and had an ambition to teach teenagers practical skills. Immaculately dressed in a bright red long-sleeved shirt and crisp black trousers, he showed me around the Don Bosco projects, starting in a large workshop where young men are taught carpentry, and five permanent employees and dozens of casuals make tables, beds and solar cookers for the camp.

Young men and women are learning tailoring and dressmaking in one building; in another, a large group of boys, and two girls, are clustered around an old four-wheel drive which they have dismantled and are now reassembling. Scattered through the camp, over 370 small groups of refugees have been given in-kind loans—bicycles, groceries, small pieces of equipment—by Don Bosco to start businesses. Most of the bikes we see, usually with a passenger perched on the back, are run as bicycle taxis by these groups.

The trainees seem committed and enthusiastic and the teachers energetic and skilled. Meanwhile, about 80 graduates of the masonry course work in the teams that have built many of the mudbrick houses in the camp. In fact, the Don Bosco program is so impressive that I begin looking for flaws, and—because the organisation has a religious as well as a humanitarian mission—there are aspects of the program that others might do differently. But these are differences over detail, and the work of the organisation provides hundreds of  refugees with an occupation, a government-recognised qualification or, at worst, some relief from the great burden of life in the camp. Most of Don Bosco’s funding at Kakuma comes from the Australian refugee organisation, Austcare.

Don Bosco has operated at Kakuma since 1993, through a period in which UNHCR policy has been forced to adapt to enormous pressures from outside and within the camp. Competition with the Turkana over food and firewood led to violence against refugees, especially against women searching for wood outside the camp. To deal with violence against women and secure a reliable fuel supply, the UNHCR eventually contracted a local group to supply firewood to the camp. In recognition of the inequalities emerging between refugees and local residents—even the minimal rations in the camp seemed generous from outside the camp—the UNHCR has helped establish or fund health, education and income-generating projects for the Turkanas, who also benefited from a growing trade with organisations working in the camp, and from job opportunities.

Inside the camp, other pressures were contributing to violence. Rebel groups have used the camp for recruiting, sometimes using force against boys and young men. Women and girls face a separate set of problems, which the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is attempting to deal with by creating a network of special services.

Heading the JRS at Kakuma, and supervising a staff of 160 refugees and nine others, is Sr Christina McGlynn—‘an Irish woman born in Scotland’ who has spent 15 years in Australia and Papua New Guinea, she tells me—who, wherever I go in the camp, is known and admired for her energy and warmth. JRS provides counselling and natural therapies for women in the camp. It runs three day-care centres providing crafts, sports and educational programs for women with severe illnesses or suffering trauma, and programs for their children. It runs a support group for single mothers, who can face hostility within their own communities. And it seems clear that the UNHCR relies on the service to help identify women and girls who need special protection.

The main reason Kakuma exists—and exists in remote and inhospitable country—is the encampment policy of the Kenyan government, initiated in response to a massive influx of refugees in 1991. The numbers have settled down to between 220,000 and 250,000—a figure that dwarfs Australia’s intake, especially when you remember that Kenya’s population is only 50 per cent larger than Australia’s and its economy is much smaller.

After three decades of rule by the increasingly corrupt KANU party, Kenyans voted in a new government at the end of December. Although there was election-related violence and some killings, it was the quietest election campaign in a decade, and power changed hands with remarkably little antagonism. With economic growth stagnant, and donor countries withholding funds, there was immense popular pressure for change. The new government has set about reforming the leading institutions and exposing corruption with considerable energy—although there are fears that the momentum will slow—and one area of reform is refugee policy.

In February, the Home Affairs Minister announced that the two camps, Kakuma and Dadaad, would be moved to less arid areas. When the economy improves, refugees will be allowed to seek employment outside their camp. A new Bill will guarantee refugees’ basic rights.

The announcement was greeted enthusiastically at Kakuma, although there’s also a feeling that political opposition and implementation challenges will slow change. And there are practical issues out in the field, too: the need to find locations, closer to Nairobi, where a new refugee camp won’t create resentment among local people, many of whom are already living in very difficult circumstances.

For the unhcr, the new government policy brings the prospect of a third option for assisting refugees: integration into Kenyan society. For refugees who are in danger in Kenya and can’t return home, there is already the option of resettlement in countries like the US, Canada and Australia, but places are severely limited, with only around 6000 on offer each year.

The third option, repatriation, is often the best alternative for many refugees. But in a region where, despite some on-and-off peace negotiations, conflicts continue, repatriation is frequently impossible. And where it is possible, I was surprised to learn that the UNHCR doesn’t necessarily have the funds to transport and settle refugees who feel it’s safe to return home.

Whether this is the fault of donor countries, many of which have reduced their contribution to the UNHCR, or of the UNHCR itself, it’s a very depressing reflection of the priorities of the West. While I was at Kakuma the US government released the list of companies that had successfully tendered to build homes and other infrastructure for the people displaced or made homeless during the war in Iraq. According to BBC News, the American companies who won the work will share between them $US900 million, not far short of the total annual budget of the UNHCR. 

Peter Browne is editor of Australian Policy Online ( at the Swinburne Institute of Social Research.



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