Rights Violation Under Warehousing – By Brett Shadle
Do refugees have the right to know about the impacts of decision making on their futures, lives as they live in limbo?
In the US, the image of the refugee camp is a mass of helpless individuals saved from certain death by sympathetic and selfless NGO workers. Having now visited Kakuma three times, I am often asked by friends, colleagues, and students what the camp is like. It is a difficult question to answer, and I can never really know what it is to be a refugee. Instead, I tell people what I have been told. In particular, I try to help Americans understand how some camp residents view their relationship with the governments of Kenya and the US, and with UNHCR. This is based on informal conversations I have had with people living in the camp – I have not conducted research in Kakuma, and I have not held structured interviews. I do not know if the stories I heard are representative or exceptional. But I describe them here in order to outline how some refugees experience their lives relative to those in authority over them.
Arbitrary decision-making A refugee’s future is in some ways in the hands of officials – those who make status determinations, or who review applications for third-country resettlement. Many individuals feel that decision-making by UNHCR and US officials is extremely arbitrary. Stories abound of applications being turned down for unreasonable or absurd grounds, or indeed for no reason at all. I was told of applications rejected because the interviewer was having a bad day, or had become jaded after months at Kakuma, or simply was not paying attention to the interviewee.
An interviewer may be unnecessarily harsh to and suspicious of one refugee, and kind and accommodating to the next. Refugees express frustration at their utter inability to have a voice in their own futures. More than one compared Kakuma to a prison. The difference is that prisoners know their dates of release, while refugees feel as if they are detained indefinitely. Their freedom is determined by factors beyond their control, beyond their knowledge.
Lack of communication A common lament was the lack of communication from officials. Refugees could often only speculate as to why certain applications were approved and others denied. Results are often not known for months or years. It would be better, I was told, to be rejected than to linger along for years awaiting an answer on refugee status determinations and resettlement. Similarly, some of those accepted for resettlement wait years before being told when they will leave Kakuma. Rumor seems to be the most trusted source of information about UNHCR activities.
Corruption I was told about two types of corruption. The first involved refugees successfully bribing government or NGO employees to increase their chances at resettlement. There were rumors of files being put ‘at the top of the pile.’ Others claimed that pictures of newer arrivals were sometimes affixed to the files of long-time refugees, increasing the likelihood of their being resettled. The second accusation of corruption involved members of the Kenya police. Several police are regularly posted along the road near the main hospital. It is said that they extract a bribe, once per morning, from every automobile or motorcycle taxi that passes by. They will, I was told, provide change if drivers do not have the exact amount requested.
Violence This again involves Kenya police. A few years ago, several hundred refugees marched to the UNHCR compound to protest the lack of security in the camp. According to one person who was present, an official promised the crowd that he would consider the matter. He asked them to disperse but when they refused, UNHCR called on the Kenya police. The police drew their batons and attacked the refugees; one man suffered a broken leg and several sustained injuries. There have been other reports of violence by police: see “Late-Night Brawl Sends Infamous Police Officer to Hospital,” KANERE, April 16, 2012 and the “Refugee protest following insecurity situations,” KANERE, December 28, 2012.
What are we to make of these accusations? If they are true, then we must demand that national and international entities fundamentally change the way they treat refugees. UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and the United States must ensure that employees treat refugees with respect and consideration and defend, rather than abrogate, their rights. There must be clear and safe means to protest unfair treatment and to appeal arbitrary decisions.
What if the accusations are false or exaggerated? Perhaps officials do indeed show great care and consideration when making status determinations. Perhaps there are good reasons why people cannot be told in advance when decisions will be announced. Nonetheless, there is still the perception that their lives are shaped by arbitrary decisions made by unapproachable officials.
So long as refugees lack detailed explanations for decisions made about their lives, their futures, they cannot help but experience a kind of mental torture. It is as if they are playing a game in which they don’t know the rules, or a game in which the rules constantly change. At the very least, then, there must be greater transparency and better communication with refugees. Refugees should be better informed about decision-making processes. Policies should be developed in consultation with refugees. There should be less talking to refugees, and more discussions with them.
All opinions in this article are of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of his university or other organization.
Brett Shadle is Associate Professor of African History at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.