Hundreds of Thousands of Refugees Languish in Kenya
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Panelists at Georgetown conference say hundreds of thousands of refugees live in dire poverty, in spite of the Kenyan government’s Marshall Plan.

By Kurt Jensen, OSV News

WASHINGTON — Kenya’s so-called Marshall Plan for the refugee camps throughout the East Africa nation uses a lot of buzzwords for government programs such as “self-reliance” and “transitioning to integrated settlements.”

The reality, though, is unrelenting despair and a lack of hope stemming from multiple generations in poverty.

This was the discussion, skeptical of all governmental promises, in a May 23 webinar sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. It was part of the center’s Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project.

Kenya has about 580,000 refugees registered in camps, principally in Kakuma and Dadaab, with another 100,000 in the process of registration. About 800,000 in Kenya have official refugee status.

They arrive from surrounding nations, including Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda, and are prompted to flee their homelands by many causes, including flooding, drought and famine from climate change, political and religious persecution, and violence.

The Dadaab camp, first established in 1991, holds mostly Somalians. More than half there are under 18 and have known no other existence, according to U.N. data. The Kakuma camp, established in 1992, originally held Sudanese refugees but now shelters those escaping several other nations.

But once in the camps, there is no place to go. Kenya has been doing little up to now to integrate refugees into communities with jobs and education. The nation admits refugees but doesn’t absorb them.

Geoffrey Shikuku, director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Kenya and based in Nairobi, called it “a time bomb.”

Kenya passed its first comprehensive refugee law in 2006, mandating a strict encampment policy after a large influx of refugees were escaping, at that time, war and famine. Before that, refugees had freedom of movement and could integrate into communities with jobs.

Sister Hedwig Muse, a human rights lawyer, said all the camps are characterized by “the congestion, the (lack) of resources, the inadequacy of basic needs” including sanitation and shelter. Sister Mues is a member of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu in Uganda but currently works in Nairobi.

The average time refugees are in the camps is 17 years, said Jesuit Father William O’Neill, a member of the JRS Mission and Identify Task Force stationed in Nairobi.

“Many children growing up in camps have never spoken their own language,” he observed. Sixty-eight percent of the residents in the Kakuma camp alone, which holds refugees from 20 nations, have incomes far below the poverty level.

The Kenyan government’s Marshall Plan, which is still in the early stages or organization, is named after the post-World War II effort by the United States to rebuild European economies.

It focuses on infrastructure and “an integrated settlement approach,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is supposed to mean safe returns, “alternative stay options” in Kenya and departures to third countries.

Pastoral work “really grounds us,” said Father O’Neill. He said Jesuits serving in the camps put their emphasis on solidarity and participatory rights.

“We really want to envision a world … in which there is general solidarity,” he added.

But there is a desperate scarcity of elementary-level teachers, and “half the teachers are not qualified,” he said.

Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, who has taught both at Georgetown and in Nairobi, said the promise of elementary education in the camps, promised by U.N. officials many times, “does not happen. They do not receive.”

And for the adults, many “have no formal work,” Father Hollenbach said. “The only kind of work that can be done is very informal, and it doesn’t produce any significant wages.” In Kenya, refugees “are not permitted to be in situations where they can get a job. The Kenyan government does not want more poor people in Nairobi.”

“This is not to suggest that refugees are simply victims,” Father Hollenbach said.

“If you keep people confined to a camp for 16 years, it’s not surprising that some of them just give up. If you have no hope, terrorism or an act of violence may not seem unreasonable,” he said.

Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center who led the discussion, said change has to involve “changing the narrative” and ending “suspicion of outsiders — what we see in the United States as well as Kenya.”

From a Catholic perspective, Father Hollenbach said he hoped refugees could sense “something bigger than the suffering they’re undergoing.” Both Christian and Muslim faiths “see God as compassionate. Compassion means to share the suffering with each other.”

Father O’Neill’s fondest memory of the Kakuma camp is a poem he heard recited in Swahili by a young girl. It ended, “I am an African child. Give me a chance!”

Featured image: A girl stands outside a makeshift shelter in 2018 at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. As of mid-2023, Kenya has about 800,000 official refugees, 580,000 of whom live in camps, and another 100,000 in the process of registration. Experts say the Marshall Plan has not been effective. (OSV News photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

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OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics. It is a part of OSV Publishing, a division of OSV, the largest English-language Catholic publishing company in the United States. OSV, based in Huntington, Indiana, was founded in 1912.