Kakuma News Reflector – A Refugee Free Press

On Kakuma’s Citizens

Posted in Contributors, Kakuma Town and Kenya, News Updates by KANERE on August 28, 2013

By Mandy Jam

During the months I spent doing fieldwork in Kakuma, KANERE’s team asked me several times to contribute a piece to the newspaper. For several reasons, I initially found myself ambivalent about the idea. Although I perceived it an honour and expression of trust to be found ‘knowledgeable’ enough about daily realities within the camp to be in the position to make statements, I couldn’t keep myself from critically reflecting on the principles and main function of KANERE as a platform of self-representation and free expression by and for refugees. What could I, as an outsider primarily engaged in refugee matters from an academic perspective, have to contribute in terms of the representation of refugees to this virtual news and discussion forum that manages so well on its own? Equally important, who should be the targeted audience of this writing? With regard to this last question, I realised that the act of publicly expressing my undoubtedly biased experiences and views might be appreciated by some, whereas it might provoke yet others. As a response to the first question, it occurred to me that, if I was to write, it should perhaps be more an account dedicated to my own witnessing of daily realities and my experiences of ‘living’ in the physical space that is a refugee camp, with all its related restrictions on bodily movement and implicit expectations of appropriate behaviour. I decided to do that, and a bit more. By writing however, I do not intend to take up a position of authority, neither do I wish to make a claim to ‘truth’.

This article will start with an account of my experiences of interaction with different groups of actors within the camp, reflecting the tension inherent in the precarious nature of many relationships formed in such politically complex spaces. It is followed by a further insight of what it is that I did whilst there. I will dedicate the final section of this article to the examination of the notion of an enacted citizenship in Kakuma. Implicitly, this article functions as a suggestion addressed at UNHCR, the Government of Kenya and other responsible bodies of authority, inviting them to reflect on refugees’ ‘acts’ of citizenship not merely as subversive ones, acts in which grievances are expressed, as rebellion or protest – or worse, as disobedience – but to acknowledge, and yes, value them as expressions that articulate a sense of responsibility of refugee populations concerning their living environment. The overarching purpose would be the opening up of a less hierarchical space for equal dialogue and negotiation.

1.              Experiences of a Fieldworker

During my time in Kakuma, and likely due to my relatively vague status as a graduate student conducting MA research, my presence was sometimes met with suspicion from camp authorities and staff, who on a few particular occasions questioned my ‘mission’. I did not always manage to initiate meaningful dialogue with staff of the various NGOs operating in the camp, many of whom I used to meet only in an informal fashion. Simultaneously however, I recognise that I have enjoyed privileges and freedoms that other ‘visitors’ are not usually granted. Many ‘outsiders’ – i.e. donors, politicians, journalists or filmmakers – who get the chance of visiting Kakuma, get to stay for relatively short amounts of time. A few days, sometimes even as little as a few hours, after which they are flown out again. During these visits, the movement of guests is carefully planned and a schedule designed for how and with what preventive security measures they are to spend the hours. I was not subjected to these kinds of measures, and for a few months, I walked about freely in the camp. This perspective functions as a valid reason for the writing of this article. I spent the bulk of my time doing what in anthropological practice is termed ‘participant observation’, an overarching term that encompasses a wide array of methods. For my fieldwork, it meant spending time with my informants at various sites in the camp; in restaurants or coffeehouses, at refugees’ homes, at field posts, at the reception centre, at food distribution centres, at the basketball playground, at the refugee library, in Kakuma town. Collecting accounts of refugees in these particular locations often brought up stories and opinions associated with them. In interviews, informants spoke about their perceptions on the general state of affairs in the camp itself, on UNHCR and other assisting and governing agencies, on security and protection issues, on the upholding or denial of (access to) refugee and human rights, on durable solutions procedures, and about topics situated in the more personal domain of individual pasts and persecution.

2.              Why Citizenship?

I will first define what I refer to when talking about ‘Acts of Citizenship’, after which I will look at one particular case of lived citizenship in Kakuma in more depth. In a refugee context, and in particular in the situation of refugee camps as extraterritorial spaces in host states where refugees are often forced to live for prolonged periods of time, a concept such as ‘citizenship’ seems out of place and contradictory. All those working in the field are aware of the lack of citizenship status in the legal understanding of the word, as well as of many of the rights that normally accompany citizenship. If it is so obvious then, why even think of using such a seemingly unsuitable concept? In this article, I derive my understanding of citizenship and ‘acts of citizenship’ as a concept put forward by Engin Isin, who approaches ‘citizenship’ as ‘the right to claim rights’. He says:

‘[…] the idea [is] that before there are any rights, there is the right to be political and […] the right to be political can only exist by exercising it.’ [He continues:] ‘Without practicing that right (to have or claim rights), we cannot even claim to be human. If we think that we have rights by virtue of being human, then this phrase reminds us that we have gained the right to say so only because we have struggled for it as political subjects. […] we become political subjects before we become bearers of human rights’ (Isin 2012: 109, italics in original).

And: ‘[…] if we approach citizenship as acts, we are interested in how those whose status is not citizenship may act as if they are and claim rights that they may not have’ (ibid., 111).

We can thus argue that citizenship is not only to be understood as something that has to be granted by an authority. I wish to stress that citizenship can, in other than solely legal terms, also be understood as a process of becoming political, by claiming (citizenship) rights that are not (yet) given, by means of acting them out as if they were. Since refugee camps are perceived and were originally meant to be depoliticised spaces, purely humanitarian, where things are generally understood to be about care and assistance instead of politics, it is not surprising that the idea of order is thought to be disrupted at precisely those moments, when camp residents establish themselves as citizens of their environment and enact their political subjectivities. In turning now to Kakuma as a humanitarian space, I will make use of the above discussion in looking at how citizenship is enacted by refugees.

2.1 Demanding Political Membership: How is ‘citizenship’ enacted by refugees?

What is peculiar about Kakuma in comparison to many other camps is its longstanding, some would say permanent existence. This means politics has, self-evidently, carved out a space for itself, but in an uneasy, often contradictory and conflicting manner. As with many other codes of behaviour in Kakuma, the degree to which one is allowed to practice his or her political membership is left undefined and ambiguous. Take for instance, ‘the new structure of leadership’, initiated and (partly) implemented by UNHCR, in which community members can put forward other members they see fit for representing the block in which they live. Here, a certain engagement in issues of co-habitation is encouraged by the humanitarian regime. The initiative is able to give to refugees a sense of control and political membership, although it remains important to critically question whose purposes and agenda it serves. Because eventually, whose control is it, which ‘the new structure of leadership’ addresses? Do refugees really get to exercise autonomy within their own living environment, or does the initiative merely serve purposes of order, the ownership of which will continue to lie with UNHCR? The underlying critique is: is this initiative not to be regarded as the creation of a simulated, pseudo-democratic political arena that actually allows only for the partly political presence of refugees? As a refugee, one can be allowed to be partly political, but never quite, never fully. I will illustrate this point of critique with the situation of a number of Ethiopian refugees who united in their grievances about perceived resettlement rights by presenting a petition to UNHCR and Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

2.2  ‘Old Refugees’ United: The Petition

I was first introduced to those who call themselves ‘old refugees’ by being invited to attend a meeting between this group and peace-building officers of LWF. ‘Old’ refers not to their age but to their date of arrival – these Ethiopians arrived in Kakuma between 1991 and 1993 and claim to have a right to a durable solution (i.e. resettlement) based on their long stay in the camp. They presented their claim as follows:

“Many of us have stayed here for over twenty years without a resettlement opportunity. Profiling has been done for people who have stayed in Kakuma for much less time. Our files are still on the shelves without a decision. Although we were interviewed on different occasions by multiple authorities, we were always told to wait. When you go to the field post you are told to wait, always to wait. Sometimes responses contradict each other, depending on the officer you speak to. Cases are always pending. We know that profiling [according to date of arrival] has been done since 2008, we feel that we have been overlooked. We are the forgotten people. Someone needs to hear us. There are sick and vulnerable people among us, this is the consequence of living here for more than twenty years without knowing.”

The group continued by explaining the reasons for the petition and addressed LWF in a request for assistance in mediation:

“We ask you, what is the way forward to seek audience from UNHCR? We feel that we need to unite collectively instead of keeping to follow procedures individually. That is we why we made this petition. UNHCR is like our father, but now people have lost their minds. UNHCR is supposed to look after refugees. There might be a time we have to go and protest and come to emotional action as a last resort. We don’t want to do that. We ask you to guide us, so that there is a way forward and we do it in the proper ways. We need you to be a bridge for us in the conflict between the Ethiopian community and UNHCR. We want to follow a civilised approach. We need them to talk to us.”

The petition was signed by over forty-five people and was then presented to UNHCR and the camp manager. The reason for requesting assistance and mediation from LWF was the lack of a response from UNHCR’s side, and a concern UNHCR would remain unresponsive toward discussing the group’s grievances. I am concerned here, with evaluating not as much the content of the rights claimed, but foremost the manner in which this group made these claims. Presuming a certain degree of political membership, the group decided to unite and collectively address their recognised ‘government’ (UNHCR) – as civilians do – in a form that reflects presupposed formal, foremost ‘civilised’ channels of communication. They respect authority, but request an arena for negotiation of matters that are at stake for them – again, as civilians would.

We see here that the group of ‘old refugees’ enact their citizenship and articulate their political membership by means of the presentation of the petition and through an invitation for dialogue, but that this political membership is only partly acknowledged. Grievances may be seen and demands may be expressed, but a response will likely be denied; the actual political arena that is necessary for politics to be practised, dialogue, remains absent. As the group rightly asked: “What is the way forward to seek audience from UNHCR? How is the system to be reached?” The question remains unanswered. The inaccessibility of ‘the system’, the ways to get an insight in opaque and non-transparent procedures of UNHCR and the perceived impossibility for refugees to communicate with the agency about the mysteries governing their lives remains a topic of daily conversation.

A Concluding Note

Due to space limitations for this article I am restricted in highlighting various other forms of enacted citizenship. I decided therefore, to discuss only the case of the petition extensively. However, people ‘live’ citizenship on a daily basis in Kakuma, and examples of it can be read in KANERE. Contributors write, for instance, about the road-speeding of NGO vehicles on the main road, thereby representing refugees’ concern about the safety of their children. They write about the risk of drowning after floods and heavy rainfall, about the ridiculousness of (refugee or Turkana) children being sent to fetch water at the laggas (dry riverbeds) or to go and beg for jerry cans to be filled at LWF compound’s gates, in the regular event of water taps not functioning. They write about the development of Kakuma’s schools and improving education in the region, about access to healthcare, all from the perspective of civil concern. My sincere hope is that KANERE will find a way to continue its important work.

References : Isin, Engin F. (2012) Citizens without Frontiers. London & New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Short biography: Mandy Jam is a Dutch graduate student in Cultural Anthropology, based at Leiden University, the Netherlands. From February to June 2012 she conducted ethnographic research for her MA in Kakuma Refugee Camp, during which she focused on refugees’ perceptions and the various competing discourses on modes of governmentality within the camp, as well as on processes of remembrance and the (re)construction of personal histories of flight and exile of Ethiopian refugees. Previously, she worked in the psychosocial field with urban refugees in Cairo, with the NGO Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).

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2 Responses

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  1. KANERE said, on October 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    Hello Mandy,

    Thank you for your insightful contribution of the reality talk on the kakuma’s environment as well us the exposure for the camp’s resident towards their grievances; especial for the Ethiopian Community in petitioning against humanitarian failed support in durable solution after decades of waiting in limbo; issues of refugees citizenship among others!

    Thanks again for your humble contribution to Kanere News.

  2. Zabina said, on December 10, 2013 at 12:04 am

    That is a true experience at Kakuma. Some researchers have find it difficulties and they have made it through but some have been meeting NGOs in low faith only to do unrealistic work. I read this article with interest.

    Thank you Mandy.


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