Kakuma Refugee Camp is located in Turkana District of the northwestern region of Kenya, 120 kilometers from Lodwar District Headquarters and 95 kilometers from the Lokichoggio Kenya-Sudan border. (Indicated by a black dot on the map.)
Population Kakuma Refugee Camp serves refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries due to war or persecution. It was established in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees, and has since expanded to serve refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. According to current UNHCR statistics, the camp population stands at just under 50,000 refugees. In 2007, Kakuma Refugee Camp hosted 21% of the total refugee population in Kenya (UNHCR Fact Sheet, September 2008).
The local Kenyan population is largely comprised of nomadic pastoralists from the Turkana community. According to the 1999 Kenya Census, the population of Kakuma town is 97,114 persons, making it nearly twice as populous as the camp.
Humanitarian Aid and Governance Kakuma Refugee Camp is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR is assisted in its duties by a wide range of organizations, including World Food Program (WFP), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), Film Aid International, and Salesians of Don Bosco in Kenya.
The camp falls under the jurisdiction of the Kenyan Government and the Department of Refugee Affairs. Since the adoption of the Kenya Refugee Act in 2007, a Camp Manager has been appointed to oversee camp affairs and liaison with humanitarian agencies. The Act paves the way for the Kenyan Government to eventually assume full management of Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Environment Life in the semi-arid desert environment of Kakuma is rather challenging. The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Economy Due to their legal situation and local environmental conditions, refugees are largely unable to support themselves with income-generating activities. The semi-arid climate of Kakuma is ill-suited to agriculture, while restrictions on employment deter refugee job-seeking. Those who work with NGOs receive a small incentive payment for their work, but incentive staff represent only a fraction of the refugee population. As Arafat Jamal concludes from his evaluation of Kakuma camp, “Anyone confined to a place like Kakuma is rendered automatically dependent on some form of hand-out” (2000, p. 23).
Daily Existence The camp is a “small city” of thatched roof huts, tents, and mud abodes. Living inside the camp is equally prison and exile. Once admitted, refugees do not have freedom to move about the country but are required to obtain Movement Passes from the UNHCR and Kenyan Government. “Essentially, the refugees are confined to the Kakuma camp area: they are not allowed to move freely outside of it, and they may not seek education or employment outside of it” (Jamal 2000, pp. 7-8). Inside this small city at the edge of the desert, children age into adulthood and hope fades to resignation. To be quite frank, it’s more or less a kind of hostage life for many refugees.
Jamal, Arafat (2000). Minimum standards and essential needs in a protracted refugee situation: A review of the UNHCR programme in Kakuma, Kenya. UNHCR Evaluation and Policy Unit/2000/05.
UNHCR Fact Sheet, September 2008. UNHCR Branch Office Nairobi.