News - May 12, 2011

Accidental city of refugees in Kenya

Joris Tielens

A refugee camp in Kenya has become a bustling city. It is proving to be a gold mine for local residents.

If you think of a refugee camp, you probably picture tents in a desert where helpless refugees are rescued by aid workers.
In reality, says anthropologist Bram Jansen in his thesis The Accidental City, the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya is more like a permanent city. It has its own thriving economy which revolves around emergency aid and opens up the chances of obtaining a ticket to the west.
Jansen lived in Kakuma for nearly two years and talked to Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians and others from further afield who had sought refuge there. The sixty thousand residents live not in tents but in stone houses, and some have been here since 1992, when Kakuma was first set up. The Wageningen researcher describes how a local economy grew up in the camp, based on aid money. People started to barter with part of their rations, and to start up small shops, restaurants and cinemas.

Many refugees also do paid work for the UN refugee organization UNHCR and other aid organizations. They spend their wages in Kakuma, for example on meat sold there by nomads from the surrounding area. Or on trips to the cities, to trade there. This has turned the camp into a source of income for the local population, who talk of Kakuma as a goldmine, says Jansen.
It helps that the management of the camp is relatively stable. In principle, the Kenyan government is in charge, but in practice it is the UNHCR that is in control. This means that the rights of women and children are better respected here than in the rest of Kenya. In fact, the refugee camp is like a miniature state in which the poorest of the poor from Kenya, Sudan or Somalia are better off than they would be outside it. 'Kakuma is growing and is linked to the local community and economy', explains Jansen. 'There are even social classes already.'
Ticket to the EU
The camp also represents the chance of a ticket to the US or the EU. The UNHCR selects groups and individuals for whom it is not safe enough to return to their home areas. Between 2001 and 2006, one fifth of the refugees ended up in the US or the EU, while the population of the camp only went on growing.
The camp has its advantages then, but is it only accessible to 'official' refugees. 'Negotiations go on between refugees and aid organizations as to the identity of refugees and whether they can return to their region of origin or not', says Jansen. 'It depends on the refugees' stories, and on the image that other people have of them.' It is in the interests of Kakuma residents to keep up the image of helpless refugees, he concludes, since that gives them refugee status. 'I am not so interested in the question of whether this entails fraud or is a justified quest for a better life. I just want to describe what happens and place it in the social context.'