UNHCR Field Posts Aim to Protect Refugees
Volume 1, Issue 3 / February 2009
Do UNHCR field posts in the refugee camp actually fulfill their role in human rights protection? Refugees are not so sure
Field posts serve as a point of direct contact between refugees and UNHCR staff in airing complaints and rights claims. They serve to monitor the treatment of refugees and ensure that their rights are upheld. But many refugees claim that the system is failing in its critical protection function.
A UNHCR “outpost” in the camp
UNHCR staff regularly visit field posts to collect refugee claims, provide feedback, and submit cases to concerned offices. Because refugee access to the UNHCR compound is highly restricted, field posts are the only forum for refugees to bring their protection concerns directly to UNHCR officials.
According to a UNHCR-Kakuma Briefing on Protection Activities, the purpose of field post visits is to monitor the treatment of refugees and ensure that their rights are upheld. “Regular presence of Protection staff at the field posts…facilitates the monitoring of individual cases…With the help of the actors involved, the office continually identifies persons deemed to be vulnerable, with a view to exploring alternative security arrangements” (p. 1).
UNHCR Field Unit administers and oversees activities carried out at field posts. Representatives from UNHCR Protection Unit (PU) and Community Services Unit (CSU) visit Field Post One and Field Post Three every Monday and Wednesday. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is also represented at field posts through the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution, Gender, and Child Protection Units.
UNHCR Repatriation and Resettlement Units do not visit field posts, but according to a UNHCR official who wished to remain anonymous, cases concerning these offices are sometimes collected by Field Unit officers.
Caseworkers from different communities serve as a link between LWF Community Services Unit on the one hand and UNHCR Offices on the other. The caseworkers’ role in this regard consists in assessing cases of different categories in the community. The cases are then forwarded to the concerned office through a written report.
There are currently two field posts active in Kakuma Camp, but another may be opened to serve Somali refugees relocated to Kakuma from Dadaab.
“A frightening situation”
An Ethiopian couple who sought the assistance of UNHCR in a complex case of eligibility, family unity, and attempted suicide represent one example in the long story of cases seen at field post.
The couple arrived in Kakuma Camp in 2003, when they were registered and given a ration card. They stayed four years in the camp without being called for an eligibility interview to determine their status as refugees. During this period they gave birth to two children.
In 2007, the couple was interviewed for eligibility but their claim was rejected. After an appeal, they were again rejected and their ration card was subsequently deactivated according to UNHCR policy.
Curiously, their two children born in Kakuma Camp were given their own ration card despite being minors under the age of ten.
According to UNHCR policy, a rejected client must leave the camp within 30 days, at which time their ration card is deactivated and they will not be entitled to access any services. This situation posed a serious dilemma for the couple, who experienced intense frustration until the husband decided to divorce his wife.
For the sake of survival, the distraught mother decided to marry another man in order to bring up her two children. At the time of writing, she was pregnant and again divorced.
Perceiving her life as unbearable and despairing at her legal limbo in the camp, the mother attempted to commit suicide on several occasions. Her last suicide attempt occurred on 5 February 2009.
Caseworkers concerned with the case report that no office seems to be concerned with, or has taken action on, her risky situation. When presented at field post, the responses of UNHCR officials have been dismissive. “This is a frightening situation, if not a disaster,” the caseworker commented.
A spectrum of cases and clients
Most claims seen at Field Post fall into one of four broad categories: 1) insecurity claims; 2) gender-based violence (SGBV) or social problems in the community; 3) child-rights claims such as early marriage, defilement, or child abduction; or 4) issues related to UNHCR bureaucratic policy, including ration card status, registration, official decisions, resettlement, shelter needs, and more.
Common protection claims include rape, assault, girls’ elopement, child abduction, forced marriage, wife inheritance, shelter dispute, water dispute, and SGBV cases (sexual- and gender-based violence). Some of these protection cases are solved at the community level by caseworkers and community leaders through arbitration and mediation. Others are referred to UNHCR PU for follow-up-but only those cases which are found to be “genuine” and require intervention from competent UNHCR officials.
The bulk of cases seen at field posts concern bureaucratic matters of UNHCR processing and feedback. Such cases include requests for ration card reunification (e.g., a family member who was lost and found); ration card separation (e.g., a case of divorce); ration card activation (e.g., when UNHCR has deactivated a ration card); or lost and missing ration cards.
Long delays in feedback from UNHCR Offices force many refugees to seek information on their registration and eligibility cases at field post. For example, many refugees completed eligibility interviews over a year ago and continue to await an eligibility decision from UNHCR Protection Unit. In such cases, individuals are nearly always instructed to “keep waiting” for UNHCR feedback.
Caseworkers at field post deal with two main categories of clients. The first category includes people who continually raise insecurity claims or new issues. They are not consistent in their statements, but keep changing their story and are unwilling to disclose all their problems to caseworkers. These are clients who have hidden agendas or unclear objectives. They are referred to as “permanent clients.”
The second category includes the majority of refugees having common problems of domestic violence, water disputes, shelter disputes, and a host of other issues due to poverty and long stays in the camp. They are referred to as “genuine cases.”
An additional group that consults the UNHCR at field post are asylum seekers, new arrivals, and repatriated Sudanese who came back for new registration.
Endless referrals and too little feedback
Refugees report that field post visits are largely ineffective due to an endless system of referrals, lack of accurate case information, and an absence of feedback.
According to one caseworker with LWF Peace Building Unit, there is lack of communication and proper information flow between LWF Community Services and UNHCR. Most cases submitted to LWF Community Services by social workers remain pending.
Some cases even “disappear” between LWF and UNHCR offices. This happens, for instance, when a case is submitted to LWF Community Services by the caseworker, and LWF informs the caseworker that the case has been submitted to UNHCR. But when the client inquires from UNHCR, they are told that the case never reached UNHCR offices.
This scenario can persist up to four years while the refugee remains in limbo. During this time, the client is repeatedly told by LWF and UNHCR to follow up the case at field post.
Many refugees have stayed in Kakuma Camp for more than a decade, some up to 18 years. This prolonged situation has caused many refugees to develop frustration, depression, hopelessness, and even suicide. Such reactions are exacerbated by late responses-or non response-to refugee cases by UNHCR offices.
Left in limbo, and desperate
Case processing problems may cause disenfranchised clients to become bitter towards the caseworker who is suspected of blocking the case. Such instances of desperation often escalate, as when two caseworkers were assaulted by clients of their respective communities. Many caseworkers experience intimidation and harassment for similar reasons.
One caseworker with LWF Peace Building Unit began receiving death threats in January 2009 from local Kenyans who were unhappy with his handling of a case in which their son had died of an alcohol overdose. He reports that insecurity is a serious problem for caseworkers: “It’s a very big challenge. As a human being, I really fear when people threaten to kill me and it’s stopping me from doing my job well-I can’t concentrate and my movements are restricted.”
The caseworker reports that no action was taken by UNHCR Protection Unit (PU) to protect him against the death threats of his clients. “When caseworkers raise a problem of insecurity they must take action immediately to ensure the caseworker is protected. They are not doing that! They neglect and we are suffering.”
When asked why UNHCR does not respond quickly to urgent insecurity claims such as his, the caseworker responds, “I don’t know why they neglect-when we report to UNHCR PU they don’t take any action.”
But with long delays in case processing and a frustrating system of referrals, it is understandable that clients become desperate.
One case example is a Congolese family who repeatedly received death threats from unknown local Kenyans. According to Faraja,* the head of the family, the case was referred to LWF Peace Building Unit in October 2006 for investigation. It was to be transferred to UNHCR Protection Unit in November 2006.
Several interviews were conducted at field post and Faraja was assured that the case had been transferred to UNHCR PU in February 2007. LWF Peace Building told the family to wait for their name to appear on the notice board. As there was no response from UNHCR, the LWF Peace Building advised the family to go to field post for follow-up.
The family spent the entire year of 2007 seeking follow-up at field post. Officers from UNHCR repeatedly informed the family to wait, that they would be called for an appointment very soon.
In early 2008, Faraja decided to see the Protection Officer. When consulted, the Protection Officer’s response was that the case had not yet been referred to UNHCR by LWF Peace Building Unit.
For the next nine months during 2008, the family repeatedly brought their case to field post for follow-up. LWF Peace Building insisted that the case had already been referred to UNHCR, while UNHCR claimed that they had never received the case.
Faraja reports that it was difficult to meet the same UNHCR PU representative twice concerning the case. During the first two years of visiting field post, the family head encountered new UNHCR representatives each time. Today it may be a lady, next month a Kenyan man, and the following month a young white woman.
Now the family is in total confusion. Is their case in the hands of LWF or UNHCR, or has it disappeared altogether? Apparently, none of the concerned officials know. 2009 marks the third year of the family’s dilemma, and Faraja reports that he does not know who will assist his family in this hopeless situation.
UNHCR faces challenges at field post
According to a UNHCR Field Unit official who wished to remain anonymous, UNHCR faces many challenges to effective services at field post.
The officer cites feedback delays to clients and long delays in the registration process. According to this official, ongoing RSD eligibility is currently processing those who arrived in Kakuma Camp between 2003 and 2006. The official also cites the more general challenge of inadequacy of basic services such as water, food, shelter, health care, and education.
A UNHCR Protection Unit official who requested anonymity says that most refugees are disappointed by services rendered to them at field post. They lack trust in Kenyan humanitarian aid workers and prefer to be heard by international staff. As opposed to Kenyan staffs, international aid workers are sometimes perceived by refugees to be more reliable or neutral-especially in cases concerning community problems.
The UNHCR official, who is a white international staff, confides that she usually receives more clients at field post than other Kenyan or local staffs. She believes this may be due to the fact that “everybody wants to see an mzungu,” referring to the Kiswahili term for “white person.”
The concerned officers at LWF declined to comment on this matter. According to the LWF Program Coordinator, William Tembu, “We are waiting for a proposed inter-agency committee to chart the way forward in respect to the press.”
*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.