Kenya: Frozen lives of refugee populations

Kenya: Frozen lives of refugee populations

Kenya has one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The East African country hosts over 600,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. They are mostly from Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Burundi and Uganda. The majority of refugees in Kenya live in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. It is estimated that more than 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers live in Kenya’s urban areas.

Kakuma Camp was set up in a semi arid area in Kenya’s northwest in 1992. Most refugees are people from South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia. They fled because of decades-long conflicts in their home countries.

The camp is a city of endless rows of identical simple buildings. More than 180,000 people from over 21 nationalities were registered as residents as at November 2015. Most have been in Kakuma for years, awaiting resettlement to third countries. The agencies that work in the camp do not offer enough jobs for everyone, and those who are employed, are paid in simple tokens. Kenyan law does not allow refugees to engage in business or gainful employment unless they renounce their refugee status and seek to work as expatriates who must pay taxes.

Of the people in Kakuma, about 58% are minors. They belong to age groups that need to go to school or get vocational training. However, the camp only offers insufficient education opportunities. Depriving young people of such opportunities means that there will be no peace dividend should they at some point in time be able to return to their parents’ homes. On the contrary, deprivation of opportunities can perpetuate conflicts when frustrated youth decide to join violent militias, as could be seen with Afghans who grew up in Pakistani refugee camps and were later recruited by the Taliban.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 70% of all refugees worldwide are long-term refugees, who are displaced from home for more than five years.

Many of them have no documents, so they belong to no state. Each year, countless children are born to grow up in refugee camps. The biggest groups are Afghans living in Pakistan and in Iran, but there are also hundreds of thousands of Somalis and South Sudanese living in various East African countries. Palestinians and Sahrawi refugees are even internationally considered to have hereditary refugee status.

Millions of people worldwide live in what UNHCR calls “protracted refugee situations”. The term’s definition is that the refugee needs have changed considerably over time, but neither the UNHCR nor host governments have capacity to address those needs fully, especially developmental. The refugees are thus left “in a dependent state years after their arrival in the host country“, as Christine Cheng and Johannes Chudoba of Princeton University put it. “A refugee’s needs in protracted situations are very different from the needs UNHCR is accustomed to addressing during an emergency response,” Cheng and Chudoba add. Typically, human security has to be provided first, and then essential needs must be addressed. These include not only food and shelter, but also education, employment, training, health care and access to credit. In far too many places, these matters are not taken care of fully.


If strife lasts long, people who have fled from violence cannot return home after a short stay abroad. They become long-term refugees, and camps become their permanent homes. Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northwest Kenya houses over 180,000 people. They have food and shelter, but they lose any sense of purpose. The longer they are in exile, the more their desperation grows. For young people, the only exit strategy is education.

At sunset, young refugees stroll along the Kakuma-Lokichoggio road which leads from the camp to the South Sudanese border about 130 kilometres away. The scene looks pleasant, but the youngsters actually live with dashed hopes. They lack opportunities and face a stiff competition for the slim chances of ever leaving the camp.  

Kakuma Camp is bigger than many Kenyan cities, but life here is very different. Masses line up to collect food rations. There are not enough jobs and not enough schools (see box "A depressing camp in Kenya's nothwest"). Thousands of people have absolutely nothing to do. Their lives become monotonous routines without ambitions, hopes or dreams. This is especially true of young people: They are about to start their life, but having only limited possibilities of taking their fate into their hands and becoming independent adults.  

In theory, people are only supposed to live in the camp for a few months and then return home or be resettled to third countries. In practice, most stay in Kakuma for ten years on average.

Many refugees lapse into depression. The loss of dignity, identity and sense of belonging kills their spirit. They would like to do something to improve their fate, but they have no options. Long-term refugees are particularly prone to be depressed.

People who flee persecution, violence and death typically expect to return back home very soon. Only once they have arrived at a refugee camp, do they realise that their old life is over, and whatever position they may have held is lost. In the camps, they are no longer individuals. They lose their dignity (see box "Losing one’s dignity"). A case number is their new identity.

Precarious schools

The adults in the camps often cannot accept their fate of being reduced to an object of charity. The youth, however, are eager to embark on their life’s journey, which is strictly confined by the camp. Education is the only path out – but it is a more difficult path than it would be in any normal town.  

Kakuma has various educational facilities for children. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) funds 20 primary schools, and the local community runs a community-based school. However, only about 45 % of the children of primary-school age were enrolled in 2012, according to the UNHCR. Classes have up to 200 pupils in primary schools. On average, secondary-school classes have 80 students. A survey done by the UNHCR, the Windle Trust Kenya and the Lutheran World Federation in 2014 showed that about half of the camp’s children still did not attend school. Moreover, schools tended to teach over-age learners.

Students who go to school are expected to study the Kenyan curriculum and learn in English and Kiswahili. Many children don’t know these two languages, and the curricular content does not fit the environment they are familiar with. A recent study in the Journal on Education in Emergencies concluded: “The paucity of financial and material resources, restrictive curriculum and language policies, and a lack of access to teacher training amount to a crisis in refugee education in Kenya.”

Nonetheless, students in Kakuma tend to get better grades in exams than the average student in Kenya. For instance, a girl from Angelina Jolie Primary School – the school is named after the American movie star who sponsors it through the UNHCR – scored 418 marks out of a possible 500 marks in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

As a rule, those refugee children who go to school tend to study very hard, because they know that good marks are their only chance of leaving the camp. What they need is one of the highly coveted scholarships.

Dashed hopes

Kakuma Camp is managed by the Department for Refugee Affairs (DRA). This Kenyan government agency is working with – and is supported by – the UNHCR. But many other charitable organisations are present in the camp as well, covering certain issues like education.

The Windle Trust Kenya manages various scholarship programmes, supported by World University Service of Canada, the UNHCR, DD Puri Foundation and the German Albert Einstein Foundation, providing some 40 scholarships for gifted refugees to study at universities and colleges in their host country or their country of origin. For Canadian-funded scholarships the age limit is 25 years, for German-sponsored ones 28.

The competition for scholarships is merciless. Every year, hundreds of students in Kakuma apply for these scholarships which the Windle Trust can award.  Students may apply up to three times. Most do not get one of those precious scholarships. Their hopes of leaving the camp are dashed, once and for all.

It is an enormous burden to see all these bright young people being denied any opportunity to develop their talents and minds. Humanitarian aid workers are witnessing an entire generation living “frozen lives”, but cannot help. Michelle Bellino from the University of Michigan recently assessed educational opportunities in Kakuma. In her conclusion, she mentions the “tragedy that renders talented human beings into a perpetual life of destitution.”

As new humanitarian crises emerge around, funding opportunities for educational scholarships are getting fewer. Accordingly, the outlook is getting even darker for the “old case load” in Kakuma.

The donor governments must do much more in support of refugee camps. It is unacceptable that 50 % of the young generation do not get a formal education at all. And it is equally unacceptable that those who do make the effort, still lack opportunities. Host countries like Kenya do not have the means to solve the problems on their own.

Sometimes, Western governments promise long-term refugees visas, but then the political situation changes, and the visas are cancelled. In 1999, for instance, a large group of Somalis in Dadaab Camp were selected for relocation to Kakuma and possible resettlement in Western countries. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, however, the visa procedures became much more stringent for most countries. Some have become less enthusiastic about refugees from East Africa. The hopes of these people were shattered. Today, 14 years later, many are still in the camp.

Raphael Sungu is Programme Manager with a humanitarian organisation on Kakuma. He lives in Kakuma, Kenya.

Image Source: D+C

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