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Nowhere to run

International | The United Nations' camp system is awash in corruption and budget crisis, but only the refugees notice it and they have nothing to lose anywa

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya-The first thing you see on the road into Kakuma is a graveyard. Refugees die, too, and over 500 sites, mounds of earth and stones, signify a fully revolving cycle of life at the entrance to this sprawling camp in northern Kenya. Cradle-to-grave service is not what the United Nations had in mind when it inaugurated Kakuma in 1992. The camp organizers intended to provide temporary shelter to African war victims. They thought they could house, clothe, and feed famine victims driven from their homes by fighting. War in Sudan drove 30,000 refugees-mostly orphans-into this arid, nomadic territory at that time. More arrived later from Ethiopia, both Sudanese and Ethiopians driven out by instability there. Somalia's subsequent civil war, together with drought across the region, continued to fill the camp with homeless. Today Kakuma houses 77,000 people. Kakuma I spilled over into Kakuma II and just last year into Kakuma III. The extensions form a corrugated metal ghetto that stretches in one continuous roofline 10 miles long. Even 25 miles away, the metal roofs glint in unison against the desert sun like a supersized reflector pad. Seventy percent of the refugees here are from Sudan, 20 percent are from Somalia, and the others form ethnic communities that are a demographic sampling of Africa's recent conflicts-from Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, once known as Zaire. Over half of the camp population is under the age of 18. They live in traditional mud huts or in shanties made of metal or wooden crates. These line narrow dirt streets sometimes running with open sewage. Overcrowding and slum conditions in the world's refugee camps is not news. What is not well known is that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is running a bankrupt bureaucracy, forced to cut back on camp services when camps like Kakuma are growing in size, and turning places of refuge into houses of reckoning. As the UN refugee agency celebrates its 50th birthday this summer, it is becoming tragically apparent that the agency cannot meet its 1951 mandate: "to provide international protection to refugees and seek durable solutions to their plight." Earlier this year the agency announced that it would phase out 700 jobs around the world, in response to reports of wasteful management and corruption. UNHCR officers in Nairobi and elsewhere are under investigation for demanding bribes from refugees who have applied to emigrate to third countries. "UNHCR officials are increasingly in a position where they are unable to fulfill their mandate," said Jeff Drumtra of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. The United Nations estimates that over 50 million people worldwide live as refugees, divided evenly among those displaced within their own country and those, like residents at Kakuma, forced to flee to neighboring countries. From the Macedonian mountains to East Timor to East Africa, officials have been quick to set up camps but slow to carry forward longer-term solutions. So life in the camps follows a predictable downward spiral. UN agents may be on hand to set up a camp, but soon turn it over to nongovernmental organizations tasked to specific services under a UN contract. The middlemen sometimes hand day-to-day operations to inexperienced third hands, often locals or the refugees themselves. The locals are cheap hires, but costs, all the while, hang constant or inflate as the camp supports not only local workers but also the careerists who have by now returned to Geneva or New York. So with refugee numbers on the rise-500 arrive at Kakuma from south Sudan every month-administrators are cutting back services. For over a year now the UN's World Food Program has placed Kakuma residents on what the agency terms "half rations." Workers hand out food only twice per month in carefully measured portions that are supposed to provide one meal a day per person. Residents say the rations amount to only about 10 pounds of food per person. "The food is not enough to last us to the end of the week," reported Simon Awan, a Sudanese pastor. According to records kept by the Lutheran World Federation, which handles most of the management of Kakuma, 20 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. A head count would suggest that that number should be higher, as children of all ages and in all parts of the camp manifest telltale signs of hunger, orange hair and distended stomachs. Medical care is also rationed. Clinics do not open every day anymore. Medical workers no longer treat the array of ailments they once did. Routine surgery and many serious medical needs are generally left unattended or referred elsewhere. Richard Bransford, a Nairobi-based surgeon with Africa Inland Mission, takes referrals from the UN camps and usually covers the costs from his own mission budget. A 26-year veteran of Africa who performed wartime surgery in Somalia and now on occasion in Sudan, Mr. Bransford says the UN often schedules referrals to his hospital outside Nairobi but fails to send the patients. In some cases, with burn victims for example, those foul-ups are critical. "The money is not the issue," he told WORLD. "It is the lack of cooperation from the UN bureaucracy. In many cases we just have a window of opportunity, and the camp management operates worse than a ghetto." Education services are also suffering. The camp has 21 primary schools but only three secondary schools to serve over 22,000 school-age children. Those who finish school find few places to put their education to work and no opportunity to pursue college-level studies unless they find a way out. The deprivations, particularly in food, force a sizeable number of refugees to actually leave the camp and trek back to Sudan, a one-day walk. There they know where to find stray crops or to better recognize edible vegetation. Escaping the camp is illegal (not to mention dangerous), but a black market trade in passes, along with knowing which Kenyan border guards to bribe, will usually suffice for the passage. "It is not so hard to get past the roadblocks," said Mr. Awan. "Money is my document," said another refugee who makes the trip nearly weekly. Black market arrangements can lead to violence and a general breakdown in community life. Riots have taken place over food and water distribution. In April one such incident left seven people dead. One day before WORLD visited the camp, a truck driver was shot and killed in a likely robbery attempt. Weapons are not hard to come by, the residents say. Mr. Drumtra says responsibility for the breakdown extends beyond UN officials. "I would not characterize it as the UN fouling this up," he told WORLD. "UNHCR is in its most severe budget crisis in the past 10 years. International donors are not providing contributions." Aid from European Union countries dropped 40 percent in the last four years. (U.S. donations have not kept pace with inflation but remain higher as a percentage than any other country.) "When you see schools closed at Kakuma or health systems not what they used to be, this is why," said Mr. Drumtra. He also acknowledges that UN refugee operations need reform. The agency should "make sure its best people are in the refugee camps rather than behind a desk in Nairobi or Kampala or Cairo," he said. Waiting on change is the name of the game for residents at Kakuma. Everyone is waiting for another life that has so far failed to materialize. As journalist David Grossman wrote about other refugee camps, "The thing most present here is absence." Mr. Awan, a nine-year resident of the camp from Sudan's Upper Nile, says churches in Kakuma provide a needed span between the past and the uncertain future. "Churches are growing. People are turning from evil and dropping tradition," he said. Mr. Awan pastors one of two Sudan Interior Church congregations in Kakuma. Each draws an average of 500 worshippers several times a week. Together with other churches in the camp, including Burundi and Congo congregants, they have formed their own denomination, United Refugees Churches. They have successfully appealed to outside Christian organizations to supply them with Bibles and to conduct workshops. Christian groups, he said, could do more to boost morale and provide services the UN has eliminated. Without those, most refugees lead inmate lives in Kakuma, killing the time and awaiting a way out. "Give us a lift!" shout several idlers as a car makes its way from the camp.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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