UNHCR Headcount Encounters Roadblocks
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
Technological failure of UNHCR database causes delay in the headcount operation, sparking stampedes and a stone-throwing altercation.
The UNHCR headcount exercise which began in February 2009 was suspended for almost a week following technical failures of the computer database. As tensions rose among refugees awaiting headcount, a stampede broke out and a Somali woman stoned a Sudanese man.
According to sources, the network failure was due to a virus which had affected the entire local area network (LAN). Technological difficulties began Thursday March 5th and were resolved Tuesday March 9th.
Refugees left waiting at the UNHCR compound report that the delay generated considerable frustration as refugees waited for hours only to be told to come again the next day. “I waited all day without taking food,” recounts one Ethiopian refugee.
The ensuing impatience and uncertainty escalated into a stampede on the third day of the headcount interruption, March 9th, when a Somali lady stoned and injured a Sudanese after a quarrel at the queue.
According to sources, the frustration arose because the Ethiopian headcount date had been postponed to March 9th due to the technical failure. But Somali and Sudanese refugees, who were originally scheduled for March 9th, had not been informed of the change. Thus, both communities felt that they should be given priority for counting.
In the chaos, people ceased to obey orders given by AGK security guards. Senior officers of UNHCR and AGK Security were forced to personally impose order at the headcount queuing point.
“If the Kenyan police officers were there, it could not have happened,” a police officer told KANERE on condition of anonymity.
Order was re-established the following day, thanks to a joint effort by the AGK security guards and Kenyan police officers.
Many refugees could not understand how UNHCR took so long to tackle the problem. “It’s now a headache, you see? You saw me the other day riding to the UNHCR compound, and today I am still heading there,” said an elderly man from the Ethiopian refugee community on March 9th.
Following the stone-throwing altercation, the headcount operation continued as planned. Throughout the last week of March, AGK security guards could be observed herding refugees with long whips fashioned from tree branches, which were put to frequent use while corralling throngs of people standing under a hot sun.
Efforts to contact UNHCR officials for comment were unsuccessful, as permission to carry out interviews on UNHCR premises was not granted.