Kakuma News Reflector – A Refugee Free Press

Democracy and Refugee Participation in Decision-Making

Posted in Human Rights by KANERE on May 12, 2009

Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009

Refugees ask whether the UNHCR policy of “participatory decision-making” is actually being realized in Kakuma Camp, and express hope for a more democratic society in refugee camps.

Power of the PenIn Kakuma Refugee Camp, refugee participation in decision-making is a vital factor. Refugees complain that they do not have a legitimate role to play in humanitarian governance, and that they lack capability to participate in decision-making.

The refugee communities practice a limited form of democracy within their separate societies, where cultural groups are represented by elected community leaders. As these communities live separately, they establish separate community guidelines. Some communities even have a constitution.

On the ground, Kakuma camp hosts many nationalities. Some communities, like the Somalis, have divided themselves into sub-tribes and clans, the majority of which have their own separate communities. As a general national community, the Somalis are concentrated in Zone Five of Kakuma One.

Zone One hosts a concentration of many ethnic and national groups. This concentration is due to factors such as social amenities, access to the UNHCR compound and other NGOs, proximity to government offices, and the greater availability of resources such as electricity.

Communities have different norms and cultural values that they choose to live by in a fair and democratic community. A community leader has a major role to shape in his or her community, but they also have limits in exercising power within their community.

Refugee leadership, democracy, and participation

In the camp set-up, every refugee community has a leadership body elected by the community general assembly. Leaders have a say in community affairs through the position they hold with assistance from other administrative structures within the community. A community leader has power to settle disputes and conflicts in the community. For example, leaders can establish systems to share water effectively among their community members.

“We work from 6am to 6pm,” says Jamal, the Somali Overall Chairman. “I should attend all inter-agency meetings with the community leaders and report or refer conflict or insecurity and any arising matters to the concerned office for further action.”

Essentially, leaders govern their communities and act as a bridge between the community and the UNHCR and NGOs. They hold many duties and responsibilities in their role as watch dog for the community. Leaders are especially active in representing individual community members when their cases are delayed in UNHCR Protection Office, as with insecurity cases or vulnerable individuals. Many community leaders complain that the responses from UNHCR on these matters take an inordinately long time.

Perspectives of community leaders

KANERE interviewed some community leaders, and from their perspective, democracy and leadership participation in decision-making is very low, if not nonexistent.

According to one community leader, refugee leaders’ democratic participation in decision-making at UNHCR simply does not exist. For example, refugees do not participate in decisions made on their files or cases at UNHCR, or in budget planning and resource allocation. The leader emphasized that such decisions exert a major impact on refugee lives, but refugees are unable to participate in the decision-making processes.

Time and again, community leaders have brought many issues before UNHCR to be addressed. Among them are major problems concerning the daily life situation in the refugee camp, as well as individual cases. However, response and feedback mechanisms are very poor.

“I don’t have power. I can’t add or remove the UNHCR’s decision once decided, but in the community we have power that exists through the board of executive and the administrative structure that makes decisions, so I can still frame up wrong decisions made,” says Odilon, a Burundian community leader. He refers to the fact that community administrators may sometimes make a mistake and incur negative impacts, at which point he as the community leader has the power to change and correct these mistakes.

Odilon added that leaders only have access to UNHCR once in a week, and only access the resettlement office once a month. They also see the UNHCR Head of Sub-Office only once a month. “As a facilitator I serve my people in a satisfactory manner and I believe they do appreciate my service and I have limits too; people just come with their issues and I only direct them to the office and I don’t do interviews.”

Refugee leaders promote stability, but the fact that they mediate between UNHCR and communities brings in room for inefficiency or inaction. Many leaders made the comparison in decision-making process of UNHCR versus community administration, arguing that the UNHCR operation is very weak and that people are not given feedback on RSD or the resettlement program. They emphasize that a more fair and clear procedure is necessary in order for their mediation role to be effective.

During an interview with KANERE, Hussein, an Oromo community leader, stated that the time given to access UNHCR only once in a week is insufficient, as leaders bring many different issues to the UNHCR office. “To serve our power effectively and to get better feedback, it takes a lot of time and this itself needs a better and more appropriate mechanism,” he says.

“There’s no democracy practiced. The only thing is the only public elections in the communities, so since I’m a refugee and don’t have any power to stand against issues or power to influence, I will just serve my community for the duration of my leadership and just step down, and life goes on,” says Hussein.

“We demand for justice and democratic governance, as decisions are only made half-way since the refugees are not involved in the policy and laws that govern refugees in Kakuma,” concludes one community leader.

Perspectives of community members

KANERE interviewed some individual refugees from different communities and collected their views on this topic. Some are not happy with the services provided to them by the UNHCR and other NGOs, while others stated that they were “fifty-fifty” with respect to this question. According to several community member, problems are always there, and requests for better services are always sent to UNHCR, but these suggestions are never fulfilled.

“I don’t see democracy here! I don’t want to use some services like Mix Me and why is UNHCR providing us with MixMe at food distribution circles? Our leaders also cannot change the decision of UNHCR, but they do struggle always and in a real sense, this is not a democratic way. A refugee including the leaders don’t have participation in decision-making,” says Dahabo from the Somali community.

Nicole, a Rwandan refugee, says that refugees do not have power to make decisions so do not participate in decision-making, whether they are a refugee leader or refugee staff. “From the services provided by UNHCR I’m not happy, but I can still have some food to eat. Leaders can sometimes consult community, but the relationship between them and the UNHCR is very weak. Authorities can influence them and they cannot make any change, so democracy in any way is not practiced.”

From the perspective of the refugees, the only democratic policy practiced by the UNHCR is the system of public elections for community leaders. The elections are observed by the LWF Community Services Unit and the Security Office, as well as the Camp Manager.

On the whole, community members report that refugee leaders guide the communities in a democratic manner that they appreciate. But some community members say that their leaders do not have enough power to stand against humanitarian agencies in the issues that affect their communities.


According to refugee leaders and community members, systems of power-sharing and decision-making are far from democratic in Kakuma refugee camp. The camp has been left isolated for many years, and now the realization of democratic rule of law and a more open society is in the minds of many leaders and refugee individuals.

From the interviews conducted by KANERE, it became apparent that leaders are not aware of the UNHCR policies that should guide the operations in Kakuma Camp with respect to democratic participation and rights. There is need for more effective participation to involve refugees in the process of decision-making at all levels.

In reality, refugee participation in decision-making is far from being realized. This is especially so because refugees lack basic information-sharing and transparency from humanitarian agencies. To ensure genuine refugee participation in decision-making, we need independent evaluations of humanitarian governance in Kakuma Camp. Refugees must be informed of their rights, and we need to begin asking questions about the possibility of a legitimate democratic society in refugee camps.

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