Refugee Headcount Begins
Volume 1, Issue 3 / February 2009
UNHCR-Kakuma has called all refugees to be counted in the latest population fixing exercise, estimated to last two months
UNHCR has called all refugees in Kakuma Camp to attend a head count which began on 2 February 2009 and is estimated to take two months. Refugees are called for a population fixing exercise at least every two years by UNHCR. “The UNHCR knows us not by name, but by number,” says one Ethiopian refugee who has tired of being repeatedly counted.
A “head count” is a census of refugees living in Kakuma Camp. Accurate population statistics are necessary for UNHCR donor accountability, funding requests, and humanitarian aid allocations. Provisions for shelter materials, food distribution, and water supply, for example, are all dependent on updated population statistics for the camp.
Another population fixing exercise is the “card exchange,” in which refugees are issued with new ration cards to replace the old cards.
During both head counts and card exchanges, refugees are subjected to a mandatory “biodata” check in which they are fingerprinted and photographed (or matched with an existing photograph). Biodata is collected for every individual and stored in the UNHCR database.
Population fixing and fraud detection
A Sub-Office Kakuma Briefing states that the aim of finger-printing and card exchange is “population fixing as well as fraud detection” (UNHCR, year unknown). “Fraud detection” refers to the assumption that individuals sometimes “recycle” their ration cards in an attempt to exploit the aid system.
According to one AGK security personnel overseeing reception at the UNHCR compound, the purpose of the current head count is to determine the number of people in the camp before the relocation of 50,000 Somali refugees from Dadaab Camp to Kakuma this year.
According to the AGK official, who wished to remain anonymous, head counts do not necessarily occur every two years. “It depends on circumstances,” he says. “Last year, the Sudanese alone had a head count. They called it a ‘verification exercise.’ Two years ago, the World Food Program complained that there was less population than the resources supplied and that food items were mismanaged. So there was a card exchange, but their doubts were falsified by the large turn-out of the population.”
UNHCR devotes major attention to ensure accurate population fixing. During a census or card exchange, other Protection Unit activities are often postponed and refugees are informed that only urgent cases will be dealt with.
Not all persons staying in Kakuma Camp attend head counts. The camp hosts many persons who are unknown to UNHCR for various reasons. They may be asylum seekers who received refugee status rejections from UNHCR; friends or relatives of current refugees; or individuals still awaiting registration with UNHCR. Whatever the reason, it is generally known that the camp hosts a sizable body of “uncountable” persons.
Traveling to be counted
Head counts are typically announced about one month ahead of time, giving refugees living in other areas of Kenya time to return to Kakuma.
Many refugees leave Kakuma Camp and migrate to cooler places such as Kitale, Eldoret, or Nairobi. Generally speaking, refugees have very thin resources to live on. During head count, however, it is necessary for individuals or families to return to the camp be counted.
Buses from Nairobi to Kakuma were overflowing in the days preceding the UNHCR head count. In early February, apples could not be purchased at local shops because buses were so full that merchants could not transport their boxes of fruit.
One Sudanese woman, Catherine,* reported that she traveled from Nairobi for head count. She says the head count is both good and bad. “It’s good because I am still in the UNHCR system, and I visited my friends and relatives.”
Catherine continues, “But it’s bad because when I was coming I left my aunt, who paid my bus fare from her small business. Now, from here to Nairobi I have to wait for money from my brother abroad. When thinking of going back, the road is very rough, the bus fare increases, the travel is sickening and boring.”
Mesfin* is an Ethiopian refugee who lives in Nairobi but has traveled to Kakuma Camp for the head count. He claims that “it’s not a head count, it’s a headache.”
When asked why he chooses not to stay in Kakuma Camp, Mesfin explains that the lack of business and employment opportunities in Kakuma made Nairobi a better option for him. “As a refugee I live a meager life. Here in the camp, you start a business but only a few are successful. If you are a refugee [staff], you will be called a casual or incentive worker. The refugees are morally and materially discouraged. Where is equality for similar jobs or equal educational level?”
“Why stay in the camp, where you would be used to UNHCR handouts?” he asks.
UNHCR has constructed new shelters to hold refugees as they wait to be counted. The shelters are intended to be temporary and will be removed after the head count, according to the AGK security personnel.
KANERE attempted to interview the concerned UNHCR officials on two occasions but could not gain access to the UNHCR compound.
*Not their real names
UNHCR Sub-Office Kakuma (SOK) (year unknown) ‘Briefing on Protection Activities in Kakuma Refugee Camp’, compiled by M. Ouma, Protection Assistant.