A few days back I was staying at a hotel directly opposite the University of Nairobi [Kenya], where the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was delivering a lecture on the refugee situation in Kenya.
I decided to sit in and find out for myself whether the pencil-pusher stories would prove themselves correct. A friend of mine, who’s completely devastated by the internal workings of the UNHCR and its apparent inability to make changes, is quitting because she can’t make an impact. Surely there is more to the UNHCR than compiling reports?
But before we get in deeper, it’s worth noting that the UNHCR defines a refugee as:
Persons recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention/1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, persons granted a complementary form of protection and those granted temporary protection. It also includes persons in a refugee-like situation whose status has not yet been verified.
The auditorium was packed and we waited for the bigwigs to drag their fat butts from equally large 4WD. Only sixty minutes late — not bad for Africa, but I expected more from the UN. Making a thousand people wait without so much as an explanation is enough to dampen any enthusiasm.
There were dignitaries from the Kenyan government, University of Nairobi, UNHCR representatives from surrounding countries and one Somali woman, who at the age of six came to Kenya as a refugee.
It was hard not to notice the camaraderie between representatives. Jokes and innuendos flowed freely and the atmosphere was a bit too jovial; perhaps a conscious realization of the mission’s futility in the wake of strong opposition — I would have expected forward-thinking optimism.
We were ready to sink our teeth into the content and it did appear as though the panel was eager to present. The MC however, in his clear preppy accent, embarked on lengthy introductions and general ass kissing that would further delay the delivery for thirty minutes.
That being done, one of the speakers gave stark realities of the Kenyan refugee situation. The three main camps, with a combined capacity of 90,000, are now accommodating almost 300,000 people. The vast majority of camp residents are Somali women and children; some having walked over 1000 km from Mogadishu towards safety.
The facilities are stretched beyond breaking point, resources are virtually non-existent, the surrounding forests decimated for 40km in each direction and general living conditions — for the most part — are unfit for human habitation. It is little wonder that some are forced to flee the camps in search of jobs and a better life in Kenyan cities?
It is here, away from the camps, that exploitation and human rights abuse is at its highest. Local businesses, opportunists, police and crooks, extort, beat, cheat and sometimes imprison those that won’t “cooperate”.
Most refugees don’t have official papers, nor do they hold authentic work permits — making them easy targets for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Kenyan red tape.
One of the speakers had just recently been to the Czech Republic where the total refugee population is estimated at 500. The presenter couldn’t resist a good old comparison between what Kenya must endure in relation to other countries and what a terrible strain the refugee situation places on resources and local communities.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether these claims are founded on solid evidence or merely plucked out of thin air to prop up the idea that Kenya is in some way disadvantaged by taking care of so many.
My curiosity wouldn’t allow me to let statistics like these be thrown around without proper validation. So let’s look at Kenya’s situation from a mathematical perspective and assume that the numbers quoted thus far during the presentation are legitimate.
Kenya has an indigenous population of around 41 million, therefore the number of refugees as a percentage of total population is only 0.88%.
Now, I may not know enough about the Czech Republic but I certainly know about Malta. With a total population of 412,000 (based on 2010 census), this tiny island nation accommodates 5,955 refugees (source: UNHCR Malta website). In addition, it has no natural resources to speak of nor any large stretches of rural land to help feed the nation. This puts Malta (as a percentage of total population) at 1.45% – almost twice that of Kenya’s burden.
The figures mentioned during the conference in relation to the Czech Republic are in fact based on erroneous data and must be accepted as nothing more than off-the-cuff propaganda. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the true total number of refugees stands at 3,588 (source: UNHCR Czech Republic website). Granted, the Czech Republic isn’t a statistical poster child, but since there are no conflicts in the area such a comparison is not valid.
So, the Kenyan burden isn’t as great as we were led to believe in comparison to other nations. Some may argue that Malta, being part of the EU, may receive substantially larger “refugee” relief funding; for this reason I’ve taken the liberty of compiling statistics on selected countries (for comparison):
Kenya is not much better than Sweden or Germany in its endeavours, but the weight it carries is nowhere near as heavy as that of neighbouring Djibouti, at 1.4%. In fact, given that Germany and Sweden are isolated from most of the world’s conflict zones they should be congratulated for their exemplary performance.
Various other speakers had their say by which time the propaganda manoeuvre gave way to mutual admiration; within a few short minutes everyone was patting themselves on the back for doing such a great job.
Yes, Kenya you’re doing a splendid job in accommodating over 300,000 refugees in squalor. When they eventually crack under the pressure and head for the affluent cities, your own citizens squeeze any remaining dignity from their souls.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my aim here to discredit the UNHCR or the supporting agencies. There are people who are doing a wonderful job and realise that eliminating problems can only occur with active participation from many organisations, accurate statistics and educated involvement. However, tactics such as these — to mislead the listening public — won’t go unnoticed. Pick up your game.
Detailed notes on the talk can be found at: http://inasworldtour.com/2011/06/10/unhcr/