Friday, July 15, 2011

Set The Refugees Free

John was a short, dark, sturdy and very bright student in a then below average secondary school in central Kenya. I was a new form two student in that school, and I had one big problem.
Because of my brand new uniform, most of the form four, from three and form one students thought that I was in form one, a ‘mono’ as they used to be insultingly referred to. Being a mono in this school meant being bullied, being intimidated, doing errands for senior students and even being beaten up by those in higher classes...but the bullying was not the problem for me; being a very moody fellow back then, I found myself in several serious (retaliatory) fights, such that by the end of the first week, everyone in the school knew that I was not in form one, and everybody knew better than messing around with me. The big problem was that out of the twelve subjects that we studied, I was several chapters behind in almost half of them, and I had to update my notes and grasp chapters. The CATs were ‘just around the corner,’ and that’s how I met John, the brightest fellow in that class. John, gave me his notes, and occasionally helped me solve some mathematical questions, and that was how we became very close friends. I soon came to learn that John was a Rwandese refugee, who had been in Kenya for over three years, and during our free times I would ask him about the Rwandese genocide, about how he landed in Kenya, and his story was indeed sad, very sad.
He would tell me about how they narrowly escaped death in Rwanda, just to settle in an equally dangerous region on the shores of Lake Kivu. He would tell me of how, on several occasions, members of his family would  go missing, he narrated the story of how they (together with other refugees) came to Kenya through Uganda, and the tribulations that they faced as they tried to settle in Nairobi’s Kayole estate (this is where most of the Rwandese refugees in Nairobi settled). He would specifically tell and re-tell a story of how his Primary School English teacher would call him a stone, and would tell the other pupils not to behave like the stone, reason being that he could neither write, communicate nor understand English, which was/is the language of instruction in Kenyan Schools. But he was fluent in Kinyarwanda, French, and could speak some Kiswahili. But in less than two years, he had mastered English and Kiswahili, and went ahead to score high marks in his KCPE examinations.
One year after i joined that school, he was suspended, for refusing to be canned, for a wrong that he had not committed (just a few weeks before the incident, the government had banned corporal punishment in schools.) That was the last time I saw him. Over the next holidays I visited their house, where I found his sisters who told me that John had relocated to Zambia.

Refugees Camps in Kenya
John considered himself lucky not to have lived in the refugee camps. The refugee camps in Kenya are situated (somehow by default) in some of the driest and hottest regions of this country. These regions are inhabited by poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, lots of mosquitoes, etc.
Since it is assumed that a refugee situation is a temporary one, refugees are accommodated in tents and other makeshift structures, receive unpredictable food rations, and almost every other thing, including security in the camps is of temporary nature, therefore many crimes, including rape and defilement are reported. The quality and conditions of healthcare and education would make those in the slums of Nairobi admirable. So in as much as these refugees escape death in their countries, what they get in these camps is survival, not life.
Receiving the refugee status itself is also a long process that might take many months to acquire from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and getting necessary documents from the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) takes a long period too. These long durations make it inconceivable for refugees to even think of going back to their countries, since going back means losing their refugee status, a move that would make it even more difficult to acquire another status, should the need arise.
In 2007, Kenya passed the refugee act with the intention of streamlining the refugee affairs in the country. But for a country that hosts close to half a million Refugees, with Dadaab refugee camp being the biggest in the world with over 380, 000 refugees, a lot more needs to be done, other than just a fourteen page law that merely outlines the administrative system of dealing with the refugees.
A section of Kakuma Refugee Camp

A School in Dadaab Refugee Camp

A Section of Dadaab Refugee Camp

What Kenya need is a serious, humane, progressive and comprehensive Refugee Policy.
There are many organisations that are doing a great job both in these camps and in the overall handling of the refugees. Organisations such as the UNHCR, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), World Food Program (WFP), CARE, Doctors Without Borders, ICRC, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran World Federation (LWF), NCCK, Selasians of Don Bosco, Refugees International, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK), Windle Trust Kenya and many others continue to alleviate the suffering and preventing deaths in these camps.
But it is not right for Kenya, even in our unfortunate economic conditions, to treat the handling of these African refugees as of secondary priority( if of priority at all), and leave the humanitarian work to NGOs. In as much as many refugees are always grateful of the ‘hosting’ that Kenya gives them, Kenyans and the Kenyan government must come up with methods of handling and hosting these innocent Africans not as some international obligation, but as a natural obligation of Africans and African governments to innocent African victims.

Keeping people in camps even for one year, let alone 20-something years is un-human, un-African, and extremely wasteful. A population of over 300, 000 people would be of more use in the economy and in nation building, than being kept in some desert camps. How does Kenya benefit in Keeping these Africans idle? Some backward people argue that our population is too big and our resources are too little. But this not true. Most African countries are under populated, and furthermore, we need more of the most important resource; The human resource. ..and even if the conditions in the Camps were to be comfortable, integrating the refugees into the general Kenyan society would be more human and would make more economic sense than the ‘hosting’ that our government gives to these refugees.

Class nature of Refugees
What is perhaps the most disheartening fact is the class nature of the refugees.
Most of those living in the refugee camps are people who were Workers and Peasants in their own countries. The refugee camps are filled with poor people’s children who were supposed to be schooling. Most of these refugees carry along with them cheap old clothes, Sufurias and occasionally a hen or two: All which are possessions of the poor and oppressed.
In all these cases, the wars that these refugees run from are political. Political wars that are instigated and propagated by the oppressing elite. In all these cases, those who flee into these camps are the innocent poor. In our Post Elections Violence of 2007, we saw how innocent people died because of politics, which they probably did not understand. A minority took up crude arms, the majority hoped for peace, while the political elites fanned the fire so as to get/retain power. The same happened in Somalia 20 years ago. The workers and peasants who were lucky were able to reach the refugee camps, the majority could not escape and hence either died or fell into the control of the armed and organised militias.
On the other hand, during these Politically instigated wars, the elite class always manage to get asylums in Europe, the U.S and in other African capitals. The few that remain behind have enough money to buy respect, and control the militias. Today,most of the Somali and Sudanese elites own houses in the most expensive neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Their children cruise in Range Rovers and BMWs. Their kids attend the most expensive private schools, attend expensive Private Universities, or study in big European Universities. other rich refugees live in upper middle class estates. Eastleigh estate is now owned by the rich Somali refugees. Thanks to them (and lack of government control), the property prices in Eastleigh is now unaffordable for most locals (including local Somalis), since the Rich Somali 'refugees' offer up to 10 times the value(and usually pay in cash). It is the same case for the rich Sudanese, Rwandese, Congolese, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Burundian refugees. They receive annual stipend that comes in thousands of dollars, while the peasants and the poor workers are either dying in their country, suffering in the refugee camps, or are trying to make ends meet in the streets of Nairobi.
Conscious Kenyans, most of whom criticize these borders that were imposed on us by the colonialists, should make it a habit to speak up against the further oppression of these oppressed Africans.

Internal security, a lame excuse
It is claimed, that in the current era of global terrorism, (just as we saw recently in Libya and Ivory Coast by the ‘international community’?)and the recent bombings in Uganda and Kenya by some Somali terrorists, the terror threats from Al Qaeda/El Shabaab, and the problem of smuggling small arms into the country are the main reasons that make Kenya not to allow for the integration of the refugees into the larger society. That they are a security threat. This is a very backward and very lame excuse. Rather than wholesomely keeping all the poor refugees in the camps, the government should strengthen its security system so as to arrest the specific culprits. condemning half a million innocent people because of a few criminals doesn't make sense.
 For instance, can the government deny people in Kayole their rights, just because a few Mungiki fellows living there are extorting, killing and terrorizing other residents in Nairobi? Can the government restrict movements in Dandora, just because some carjackers, robbers and killers have made it their safe haven?

The camps are necessary
But again, for the sake of planning, order, transit and orientation, refugee camps could be necessary. There are times when the reasons for seeking asylum last just for a few weeks. There are times when we have huge influxes of refugees, and special holding grounds are needed for them, but these holding grounds must be humane, should be comfortable. The camps should act as holding and transit areas.
Now that recent history has shown us that refugee situations might be more than temporary, these holding grounds should be used to orientate the refugees into the Kenyan society’s way of life. Things like Basic Kiswahili, what to carry where and when, the security situation in the Kenyan streets, where to get help if in need, and even simple things like how to cross the Kenyan roads...

Refugees-Locals Tensions
This orientation would help prevent unnecessary tensions caused by small misunderstandings, cultural differences and certain attitudes. These differences tend to create animosity which is usually not there. Kenyans love and respect visitors, including the refugees, even more than they respect themselves. Kenyans are very welcoming and accommodating. It is easier for a typical Kenyan street mugger to forcefully steal from another Kenyan, that they would from a Sudanese, Somali, Eritrean or an Ethiopian (interestingly, the physical characteristics of these four peoples are quite distinct,)
But tensions, especially class tensions continue to exist, and are unfortunately blamed on a whole people. When the Rwandese refugees began arriving in the late 90s, it was reported in the dailies that some of the rich Rwandese would  get into the front seat of a Matatu, and pay double fare so that they could sit alone. Some time ago, I attended a demonstration in Eastleigh(which has many Kenyan and Somalian Somalis) which was organised by women who wash clothes for some very little pay(commonly known as mama dobi, or mama nguo) most of who live in the neighbouring Mathare slums. These women were demonstrating against the mistreatment that they face from their bosses who are Somalis. Some of them spoke of how they would be raped after washing the clothes, others would tell of very grotesque stories of how they are forced to clean dead bodies, others complained of being denied even the meager wages that they’ve worked for, among many other sad stories. Such stories tend to be generalized on a whole people, thus creating tensions.
Other tensions come about when the refugees in Nairobi segregate themselves from the rest of the Kenyan society. They even do not bother to learn Kiswahili, the language of the common man. At times, cultural/religious issues also breeds tensions, for example, dating/marrying Somali, Sudanese and Ethiopian women is discouraged, if not completely forbidden (especially by their men)yet the Somali men, Sudanese men and the Ethiopian men can date and marry Kenyan women. These petty cultural/religious issues breed quiet tensions.
of exception is the Congolese refugees. Most refugees from Congo interact with Kenyans in a smoothest manner. In as much as the dress distinctively, and in as much as they speak Congolese Swahili, they still mix easily with Kenyans, and they do not have any extreme potentially conflicting cultural-social-religious issues.

‘legalising’ refugees and putting up Strong labour laws
The class nature of the refugees is very evident even among the urban refugees. Whereas the rich urban refugees display their excesses and negative attitudes that are characteristic of their class, the poor refugees who somehow find their way to the city encounter double oppression, the ordinary oppression because there are poor, and further oppression because they are in the cities/towns illegally. Because they have to survive, they tend to take up jobs on extremely low wages, mostly as house helps and menial workers, where their employers take advantage of their illegal nature to exploit them as they wish (they cannot run away, they cannot report their cases to the police for fear of arrest,,,their future is very uncertain). Some (women) get into prostitution, where they still have to work under local prostitution kings and queens, for protection and marketing.
The police also take advantage of their illegality to extort money from them.
To prevent all this, the camp idea as earlier said should be scrapped off, and the refugees should be absorbed into the economy. This will automatically deal with the idea of illegality, which will further boost their sense of security and confidence. Strict national labour laws should be enacted, setting minimum wages, salary scales and working conditions in all fields so that space for extra-exploitation of the refugees is reduced.

Kenyans, Kenya and the African Union
In the meantime, volunteerism should be encouraged and promoted among the ordinary and qualified Kenyans, so that they may assist in these refugee camps, as the government of Kenya works towards becoming more serious, humane and logical in handling the whole refugee issue, by working towards setting them free. It was great news when a few years ago Tanzania Naturalized over 160, 000 refugees (..In as much as they had been refugees since 1972, this was still a very very positive move)
Currently, there are no structures that can facilitate free volunteer-ship in these camps. A visit to the websites of the few NGO’s that work in these camps shows that these NGO’s are more interested in monetary donations: Volunteer-ship is not in their priority list. Since our government treats the refugees not as Africans, but as foreigners, and all the management, save for the processing of papers, Is left to the UNHCR and the NGO’s, let alone coming up with volunteering structures.
The African governments and the AU must come up with real solutions to the problems in places like Somalia and the other unstable regions. They must also come up with methods of preventing such situations from occurring, and when they occur, they should be nipped them in the bud. (Of course, the ultimate solution is Africa Unity under Socialism)
Today, high tensions have been building up in Burundi since their national elections last year, where the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s candidate went in unopposed after all the opposition parties in this fragile country boycotted the elections due to massive pre-elections irregularities. As history has shown, what happens in Burundi tends to flow over to Rwanda, and vice-versa.
Things in Rwanda are seemingly quiet, but trouble is also brewing from within. Dictatorships have never lasted forever, and the people of Rwanda might soon rise up against the oppressive regime, a situation that might create another Rwandese refugee situation.
Tensions have also been building up in Sudan, over the Abyei, Kordofan and other new border regions. Our regional governmental bodies should come up with ways of dealing with these issues before they blow up into a never ending crisis like we have seen in the past.
This year, I received a friend request on facebook. The friend request was from a guy who called himself an old friend of mine.……this old friend was John, and this was nine years since I last heard from him! He’s now married and settled in the United States.

Benedict Wachira
14th July 2011

1 comment:

  1. A man with free thought - very rare to find nowadays. Refugees are people too and that bare minimum gives them a right to a life of dignity.