Speaking for Refugees or Refugees Speaking for Themselves
Volume 1, Issue 2 / January 2009
Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond
Dr. Harrell-Bond is a leading advocate for refugee rights. She founded the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo. She has written many articles and books on refugee situations, including Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism with G. Verdirame. KANERE invited Dr. Harrell-Bond to contribute an editorial on a refugee free press.
With all the talk about refugee participation, why have the refugees of the world continued to remain largely without a voice? Almost everything we know about the opinions, experiences, perspectives of this group of people, or the examples of the violation of their rights, has comes from the pen of others who take the trouble to interview individual refugees and write up the stories they tell.[i] This is about to change in Kakuma – with the appearance of KANERE.
There will be many challenges to KANERE’s success: the lack of a common language probably being the greatest. Since it will not be possible to reverse the dominance of English or Swahili – one of the spin-offs of the arrival of a free press in Kakuma will, I hope, be the increase in language teaching throughout the camp. Another big challenge will be the capacity to report the interests of the neediest among the population.
Access to enough computers will be another obstacle, as will paper for printed copies. However, given the valuable role KANERE can play as a ‘feedback’ mechanism in Kakuma, one would anticipate that UNHCR itself would fund this free press itself.
After all, it was Mark Malloch-Brown, then a UNHCR staffer, who complained: ‘We work for no other organization in the political, governmental, or commercial world which has such an absence of mechanisms for determining citizen or consumer satisfaction.’[ii] If a free press spreads among the hundreds of camps in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and appears on the World Wide Web, indeed a feedback mechanism will have been established. We know of only one other newspaper, TheVoice of Refugees, produced in Osiri Camp in Namibia, but it is not using modern information technology.[iii]
Refugees allowing others to speak for them
There are many obstacles to refugees organizing to assume control over their own lives or to speaking out as a unified group, whether they live in or out of the camps. The first important principle upon which we would all agree is that refugees are first and foremost people, but people who have survived being forcibly uprooted and have suffered varying degrees of trauma and torture. Some refugees will be completely incapacitated by depression, and, even where it is available, will resist psychological help because they fear it implies they are ‘mad’.[iv]
Most important, unless very lucky, most refugees have lost those upon whom they relied for trusting friendships and social support. Indeed, this is the most important loss for a refugee – wherever he or she ends up. Even if one has all the material resources one needs, no human being can exist anywhere without a social network that provides support. Helping another refugee build up a new social network is one of the most valuable things one can do. It is called building friendships!
Rebuilding a social network takes a very long time because it presumes that the individual members know each other well enough and are prepared to provide reciprocal support. Unfortunately, many refugees are still in too much pain from their own experiences to be able to think beyond themselves to the needs of others.
Another important factor which prevents refugees from coming together to address a single issue is that they originate from so many different nationalities, each with their own interests and political situations that gave rise to their flight. It is usually with these matters with which refugees remain preoccupied, even obsessed.[v] But since refugees who live in camps share the violation of their common rights enshrined in the 1951 Convention, beginning with the right to freedom of movement and the right to choose their own residence, one is perplexed at their silence and their apparent willingness to leave other people to determine the policy and create the rules for them, and ensure conformity?
Speaking on behalf of any collective requires that it is done through representatives. Refugees in camps have great difficulty in organizing themselves with any elected representative leadership speaking for them as a group. In a refugee camp, people of many different backgrounds are thrown together and often asked (by agency staff) to ‘elect leaders’ without any previous knowledge of one another’s characters. This is usually done without a constitution that would ensure the opportunity for new and frequent elections so they could vote out the bad or have leadership skills missing from those elected before they knew them, and vote in the persons they discover are more competent. Elections themselves may be run contrary to principles of democracy – rather than a secret ballot, I have often seen people line up behind the candidates, so that on some occasions, the biggest bullies who are most feared by the majority get elected as leaders. Let’s face it; refugees bring power structures along with norms and values from their home countries that remained un-reconstructed! Individuals who can speak the language of the camp officials – usually English – have the greatest advantage and others may even elect them for this reason alone. It is not unusual to find camp leaders who combine language abilities along with being the most corrupt.
Power and speaking for oneself
Let’s face it, there are certain groups of people in any population who are never allowed to speak for themselves, to represent their own rights or interests, or to reflect on the provisions that are made for their care. These include prisoners, patients confined to mental hospitals, children, the physically challenged (disabled), victims of a natural disaster, the indigent (e.g. homeless, ‘problem’ families who are under the care of social service institutions) and so on.[vi] Do refugees confined to camps fall into such groups? The writings of Goffman[vii] and Foucault[viii] have alerted academics to the dynamics of power of those who control the institutions that house them that have rendered such groups speechless.
Based on Goffman’s book, a film called ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, starkly reveals how institutional power works for the inmates of a mental hospital. In this film, Nurse Ratched was able to exercise such complete power over her charges that when challenged by one patient, murder was the result. This would be an important film to show in a refugee camp.
Over the years, through the interventions of advocates, the incapacities of some of these voiceless groups have been challenged. We now even have Olympics for disabled people. Having discovered that children after a certain age can speak for themselves, there are now growing numbers of programmes that promote children’s active participation in the planning of and running activities for themselves.
On the other hand, in a camp situation real power lies with the ‘lead’ NGO. It usually does not share information about the budget or other resources to be allocated and has absolute power over almost everything within its confines. Under these circumstances, the notion that it would be possible to have a democratic functioning camp leadership structure is a farce. Perhaps so long as camps have not themselves been destroyed, it is better to think of them as welfare (or in Goffman’s terms, total institutions), run by others who hold the power.
In the meantime, one way to begin to address the evils of camps is to create feedback mechanisms, which, while beginning to address problems that can be put to rights, will also alert donors to the evils of camps. The dream that one day refugees would unite to form an Amnesty of their own seems a long way off. In the meantime, journalists working for KANERE have a great responsibility to the population of Kakuma.
[i] There are exceptions: some refugees who can write in one of the major languages of the world have published books about their experiences. In the case of former residents of Kakuma, there are a number of publications where self-descriptions of the ‘walking boys’ appear. None of these, however, represent an effort to comment on the situation of refugees as a whole or systematically present the violations of refugee rights when they occur.
[ii] Executive Summary, KRC Report prepared by Mark Malloch-Brown for UNHCR, at p.8 (Sept. 1991).
[iii] We know of it, through the US Committee for Refugees and Migrants (USCRM), www.refugees.org/warehousing/namibia, because it does not use modern information technology. When one searches for it on the web, one find references to tourist camps for safaris. However, when I search for KANERE + Kakuma, Kenya, KANERE turns up on the third entry!
[iv] The past year and a half, I have been assisting Iraqi refugees in Egypt. Having lived through years of Saddam’s oppression, the period of the sanctions and three wars, these people not only knew they were suffering depression and trauma (and that this did not mean they were ‘mad’), they knew they needed professional help and requested it. The tragedy was that there was no affordable counselling available in Cairo and all they could get were ‘psychotropic’ drugs for depression.
[v] Most refugees can not make sense of their experiences because their experiences are so senseless. Writing down what has happened helps many people bring some order out of the past.
[vi] I recently attended a course on statelessness, and, although encouraged to attend, there was not one stateless person present and nor were there examples of testimonies which would reveal the horrors of their existence without the protection of a state, or the absence of the rights they should hold were they not stateless.
[vii] Goffman, E. 1991 (reprint) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Penguin Social Sciences
[viii] For example, Foucault, M, 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Gallimard