Refugee Experiences of Legal Protection in Kakuma Camp
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
Lack of information, lack of access to authorities, and widespread uncertainty about the future of their legal protection and durable solutions
At eighteen years old, Kakuma Refugee Camp hosts 51,230 refugees from different East African and Great Lakes regions. According to UNHCR figures released in March 2009, the last food distribution cycle in Kakuma camp served 51,230 individual refugees and asylum seekers.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside his or her home country and has a well-grounded fear of persecution owing to his or her race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Refugees faced different unlawful acts in their home countries prior to their flight. Some were beaten, tortured, arbitrarily arrested by their governments, and others came from war-torn countries. Among them are women who experienced rape and death threats, and some whose husbands and children were killed in their presence.
Fortunately, these refugees arrived in Kenya where they are hosted in Kakuma Refugee Camp. The UNHCR Protection Office is expected to offer a legal protection defense to refugees whose rights were abused in their home countries.
Uncertain protection and lack of redress
It is clear from conversations with refugees that there is a gap between refugees’ expectations and actual protection in the camp. “I enter protection offices when I am called by the officer and only when I have a new arrival who needs registration,” says a Burundian assistant chairman. “Everything lies in the hands of protection officers; [refugee] leaders have nothing to do with it,” he added.
Refugees wonder how long they are to stay in the camp. Many express the concern of insecurity in the camp that takes refugee lives every year. Others complain of the unlawful acts committed by agency staff or fellow refugees, but there is very little they can do about it to bring them to justice.
For example, two women refugees were falsely alleged to have stolen money from LWF (Lutheran World Federation). They were summoned to the Kakuma Police Station in December 2008 and later released. “We were falsely alleged to have stolen money from LWF Finance Office. Up to now we don’t understand what happened to us and how it ended,” they said. These two women were in the former women’s catering groups that were dissolved by LWF in January 2009 due to budget cuts.
The women report that they were not provided with any written documents pertaining to the case. But one of them was requested to give her telephone number to the police station so that in case the police wanted to see her, the women would be called. Since December 2008, the police have not contacted them.
Refugee status determination
In Kakuma camp, the UNHCR Protection Office determines whether an asylum seeker meets the refugee status criteria through the process of refugee status determination (RSD). This process involves an in-depth interview and may take months or years due to heavy caseloads and processing delays.
Legal protection of refugees is a matter of life and death. Refugees from Burundi, Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Southern Sudan are currently undergoing RSD interviews either in the Nairobi or Kakuma UNHCR offices. When an asylum seeker is not recognized as a refugee by the Kakuma Sub-Office, he or she is not allowed to remain in the camp, to access health services, or to receive food and other privileges to which recognized refugees are entitled. Despite these hardships, a small number of rejected asylum seekers have no option other than to stay in the camp. This option is more likely to be pursued by those with large families living in the camp, where they can access a meager lifeline.
But young, single asylum seekers who are rejected often do leave the camp in order to go search for other living opportunities in major urban areas such as Nairobi, Eldoret, and others. Rejected asylum seekers in Nairobi lead a dangerous life. They have no valid documents which allow them to stay in the country. It is difficult for them to obtain assistance due to lack of identification. They may be victims in case a crime is committed in their surroundings, especially when law enforcement officers are tracking a suspect.
John N., a refugee student living in Nairobi, says, “It is hard for me to be given assistance of food in churches or mosques, because they don’t know me. To get treated here in Nairobi clinics of hospitals they request ID, and I don’t have it. Life is hard. For me to be assisted I have to be with other recognized refugees in those institutions that offer assistance to refugees and vulnerable people like churches or other religious organizations.”
According to one refugee who spoke to KANERE, no asylum seekers are told the reasons for their rejection.
Refugees in Kakuma question whether the RSD interviews proceed according to the proper legal standards and procedural guidelines. According to refugees, the process appears to “be buying time.” Refugees believe that most lawyers know that refugees are not competent to succeed in legally detailed interviews, and seem to be unnecessarily formalizing the interview process.
Lack of information about rights
Many refugees enter the RSD process equipped with very little knowledge, unaware of their rights and unclear about the significance of the process itself.
“How can you appear before a trained and qualified lawyer, while you have no skills to respond, your educational background is low, and expect these refugees to pass interviews?” asked Ane Marie, a Rwandan refugee.
“It is very shameful when a male protection officer asks a woman refugee to produce evidence of rape which happened on the way to Tingi-Tingi (a locality in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC). After all these long and uncultured hearings, the decision is made saying one does not qualify to be a refugee under UNHCR mandate,” she adds.
Refugees in the camp do not understand the meaning of UNHCR mandate and prima facie protections. Even community leaders who have access to meet the UNHCR officers concerned with protection say they do not understand the difference between mandate and prima facie refugee status, and what the categories mean for the people designated under each category.
Humanitarian agency or trademark?
To some, UNHCR is everything they need to survive. But to others, the same organization is a merely a trademark. By this, refugees mean that UNHCR has “good laws” and can do a good job to assist refugees. However, some refugees believe that some officers use these humanitarian policies to secure long-term employment for themselves. For example, if all refugees left the camp for resettlement or repatriation, many UNHCR officers would lose their jobs. For this reason, refugees say, some officers will always want the refugees to stay in Kakuma Camp.
One Ugandan refugee, Mr. Odongo, criticized UNHCR saying, “Some Ugandans became legal refugees in Kenya in 1988. In 1992-1993 they were sent to stay in Kakuma Refugee Camp. I share with them the fear to return back to our country. Yet many of us have made several attempts to request UNHCR to assist us in getting a durable solution, but all in vain. I see that they detain us here to keep up their jobs.”
KANERE asked him about his expectations on how long he and his family may stay here in the camp, as refugees are currently being profiled by UNHCR in order to seek a better solution to their refugee dilemma. “I have no hope in it. Some officers know what they are doing. How many refugees attended profile two to three years ago, and have still got no decisions on their cases? The resettlement officer who started profiling has gone, then a new one came in and also went. Now there is another one, but there is no communication about our cases, yet every month they receive their huge salaries.”
Fears about future protection
There is a concern that the governments in countries of origin have been requesting that refugees return home. Specifically, many Sudanese refugees cite the Tripartite Agreement as an indication that the Sudanese repatriation was not initiated by UNHCR due to humanitarian concerns, but by their own government due to political concerns. Refugees still claim that the same governments caused them to flee their homes, and they do not believe that these governments are willing or able to protect them.
“I fled the current government of Rwanda three years ago. I thank God that I am alive. I bear the scars of the people I know well. What have they [the Rwandan government] seen that has changed them? They are the law and they are authorities. I am sure they have no will to protect me,” says a single Rwandan mother.
Ethiopians, Ugandans, Rwandans, and Southern Sudanese refugees claim that their protection in Kakuma camp is strongly influenced by their governments. Rwandans and Southern Sudanese point to the Tripartite Agreement signed by their governments, UNHCR, and the Kenyan government. They fear that the application of the “cessation clause” of refugee status to their protected status in Kenya, which they fear will endanger their lives. They say that if their protected refugee status is removed, they may either be considered as illegal immigrants or be returned home by force, where they fear for their lives.
“I know that in 1998, Ethiopian refugees who fled their country in the early 1990s were collectively denied protection. This time I was attending to my protection interviews in what they called a ‘screening center.’ It is likely that when we are kept here, the time will come and UNHCR protection will be removed on us,” says one Rwandan refugee. She refers to Ethiopians who fled the Mengistu regime before 1991 and were given protection as refugees in Kenya. But when the current government came into power, these refugees were refused protection.
In reality, there is little reason for recognized refugees to worry that their protected status will be removed. It is unlikely for UNHCR to rescind refugee status once it is granted simply because the home country’s government has become stable.
KANERE attempted to speak to a UNHCR Protection officer who is knowledgeable on this issue, but the officer was too busy to schedule an appointment with our reporter.
The dignity and protection of life as a refugee in Kenya depends entirely on UNHCR and host government protection. However, the prolonged dependency of refugee life in Kakuma camp dramatically impacts refugees’ enjoyment of basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of movement and access to information and education.
In addition, refugees are uncertain about both the legal and practical aspects of their rights protection in the asylum country, and they are not given sufficient access to authorities in order to address their claims and satisfy their need for knowledge and information about their own situation.
As a UN agency, the UNHCR should provide support to refugees in need of the upholding of their dignity as human beings, not as a tool to be used in the mobilization of “aid” resources.