n a surprising reversal of government policy, Kenya’s High Court recently struck down a mandate that, if implemented, would have forced refugees out of Nairobi and relocated them to refugee camps.
By Kate Leisner, Originally posted by Refugees International
Although this pushback of the government’s plan certainly is a victory for refugee rights, it doesn’t hit the heart of the problem, which is that Kenyans are becoming increasingly intolerant of refugees living in Kenya.
Each year, thousands of refugees pour into Kenya from neighboring countries and add to the already shaky situation in the region. With refugee camps continuing to experience increasing violence, it is time to look for new ways to heighten security and safety. One obvious, albeit rarely touched upon, tactic is to include host populations in aid support.
A UNHCR report found that developing countries host 80 percent of refugees, meaning that the mass influx of refugees strains regions already facing economic difficulties and general insecurity. This induces tensions between host and refugee populations. And aid organizations, by withholding aid from the host populations and offering support only to refugees, can even contribute anti-refugee sentiment.
Such a phenomenon is unfolding in Kenya, where approximately 600,000 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan reside. In the country’s North Eastern Province not far from the Somali border lies Dadaab, a drought-stricken town harboring the world’s largest refugee camp. Countless NGOs have set-up shop here, offering food, shelter and medical services to the refugee population, which consists primarily of Somalis fleeing their country’s ongoing civil war.
While these groups are working around the clock to bring much-needed relief to refugees in Dadaab and other camps in Kenya, many are not offering Kenyans the same services. This approach completely overlooks the precarious situation surrounding refugee camps: drought, famine, political strife, and widespread poverty, which leave many nearby Kenyans grappling with long periods of insecurity.
This act of aid giving and aid denying is abetting a dangerous dynamic in the region, where Somalis and Kenyans have a long track record of attacking each other. In the past few years, assaults on Kenyan security forces by Somalis have increased, and just last May, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the widespread abuse of Somali refugees by Kenya’s police force. The murders of refugee community leaders and the abductions of aid workers have further deteriorated relations, not to mention Kenya’s messy invasion of Somalia in 2011.
The refugee crisis is playing a very large role in the escalation of tensions. In Dadaab, Kenyans suffer from poverty comparable to many refugees, yet they are turned away from aid relief sites. NGOs set up medical tents within refugee camps, but Kenyans are refused care; aid workers give refugees water free of charge, but Kenyans must pay.
In a last-ditch attempt to access relief efforts, some Kenyans have taken to posing as refugees, which only muddles the process of assessing the refugee crises. Others have taken to abusing and exploiting Somalis. And almost all Kenyans are joining the nation-wide call for Somalis to return home.
But as Somalia remains unstable and dangerous, a fact demonstrated by Doctors Without Borders’ withdrawal from the region earlier this month, rounding-up thousands of Somalis and sending them back to Somalia doesn’t appear to be a viable option. Instead, NGOs and the international aid community need to include Kenyans in their aid relief. This may not solve the refugee crisis in the horn of Africa, but it will improve the conditions in and around refugee camps like Dadaab and improve relations in the region.
WAHA put this very idea to action. From November 2011 to March 2013, WAHA partnered with Kenya’s Ministry of Health and Médecins du Monde to provide obstetric and pediatric care at Dadaab Hospital and in health centers in Garissa district. WAHA offered medical services to the host population and refugees alike, focusing on care for women and children.
“Lots of money comes in to help the refugees and many NGOs work in the camps, but very little is put toward aiding the host population yet they are suffering, too,” says Marion Oudar, administrative and financial coordinator for WAHA’s projects in Kenya. “That’s why we decided to step in and offer support to both communities.”
By renovating health facilities, training medical personnel, and providing equipment, WAHA’s activities strengthened Kenya’s healthcare system and helped the government better support the host population. WAHA also joined efforts to alleviate the refugee crises: refugees were shuttled to Dadaab Hospital from the camps in times of emergency, such as when women were in need of caesarian sections. WAHA even donated 10 maternal health motorbike ambulances to the Ministry of Health. Two bikes were stationed within the camps and eight within Kenyan communities.
Capacity-building projects like WAHA’s allow host communities to better cope with huge overflows of refugees and go a long way in stabilizing relations in the region. Unfortunately, with Kenya’s recent anti-refugee rhetoric growing, it has become all too obvious that projects like these are lacking.
“There are tensions between Kenyans and Somalis because Somalis are receiving all the help,” says Oudar. “More needs to be done for the host population.”
With Kenyans shouldering the burden of the region’s refugee crisis, it is only natural for them to seek relief, and it should only be natural for the aid community to provide it.