A Voice from the Voiceless >> Dadaab Refugee Camps Kenya

March 9, 2010

Hi

I received the following message from some African refugee workers I am in contact with in my day job. This is stuff you won’t see on ABC, BBC, PBS or written about in UN Reports. It is a Call from those whose voice has been voiceless in Dadaab, Kenya. I have not corrected any grammar, syntax or spelling. I am posting this as I received it.

stavros

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Dear All the concerned Memebers,

With humble respect, on behalf of the refugees living in the camps of Dadaab, we would like to share our grievances with the world and ask for you to help us find our way to freedom.

Our lives in the camps are far worse than you can imagine. We live in an open prison, far away from justice and humanity. We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximize our potential. We are chained to a life full of stress and despair; a life for which many would prefer death. We are denied opportunities for education and employment. We live in a condition without adequate water, food, or health facilities. We are arbitrarily beaten or detained by police within the confines of the camp. We lack the ability to freely express ourselves or have control over the decisions affecting our lives.

For those of us lucky enough to obtain employment with the agencies, we are exploited through the payment of mere “incentive” wages, while national and international staff receive much greater payment and benefits. How can you force us to live in a certain place that denies us our human rights and our basic needs?

 This note wishes to express some of the challenges we face here in the refugee camps of Dadaab in the hopes that we will be given a chance to have greater control over our lives, and have our fundamental human rights fulfilled. Although the challenges and abuses we face are numerous, we will only briefly mention some of our main grievances, including restricted movement, exploitative working conditions, poor service deliver, and false information and abuse by UNHCR and other agencies operating in the camps.

For many of us, the restrictions on movement and the conditions in our forced confinement have caused more psychological, economical, and health problems than diseases and wars have caused.

We ask the Kenyan government, the other governments of Africa, and the people of the world to hear our voices, see our condition, and look further into our situation. We only want our chance to thrive, to live our lives, to visit our family members, to attend school, to receive medical treatment, to help support our families, and to have control over the economic and policy making decisions affecting our lives. We only want the chance to live as other human beings live, with a hope for the future.

Please hear our cries, allow us to move freely from this open prison, and provide us the opportunity to live our lives, support ourselves, and pursue our dreams!

Restricted Movement

Some of us have faced the imprisonment of the refugee camps of Dadaab since 1991, while others of us are newly arriving. Although there have been changes and developments over the past nineteen years, our restricted movement has caused and continues to cause our underdevelopment and deterioration. Many people have died from simple diseases because they could not move to get treatment in Garissa (a town only 90 km from Dadaab). Many parents have remained separated from their children who disappeared from the camps because they could not move to search for them or inquire of their whereabouts. Many students have missed their chances for educational opportunities, have failed to take their final examinations, or have been unable to obtain education certificates earned because they could not receive the permission to move. Many people have been forced into greater poverty by being denied the chance to work and by having to pay three times the price of goods in other regions because they can not move to get cheaper goods for consumption or business. Perhaps worse still, many who have tried to move have been beaten, arrested, detained, and/or forced to pay heavy bribes or fines of large amounts of money they never imagined.

Exploitative Working Conditions

Ever since the creation of the refugee camps of Dadaab in 1991 and 1992 and thereafter, UNHCR and the agencies operating in the refugee camps of Dadaab have relied for their operations on the exploited labor of the refugee communities. Whether skilled or unskilled labor, refugee staff members have worked in conditions and received wages that are in violation of national and international labor laws. While many of the refugee staff in the agencies work tirelessly for the agencies and their fellow refugees, they still merely receive “incentives” for their hard work and dedication. Even highly experienced individuals, some of whom have graduated from Universities, colleges, and secondary schools in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Sudan, etc., receive unlivable wages, let alone wages commensurate with their experience. In addition to the dreadfully low, unlivable wage, refugee staff members are discriminated against in their payment. Specifically, although refugee staff members work as many hours and complete as many or more tasks as national or some international staff members, refugee staff members are paid significantly lower amounts and are called the derogatory name of “incentive” staff members receiving not wages or a salary but “incentives.” Indeed, though the work load given refugee staff members often exceeds that national/international staff members, refugee staff members are not given their proper respect or payment.

In a related manner, refugee staff often face harsh and discriminatory treatment by national and international staff of UNHCR and the agencies. Several national and international staff frequently use harsh commands and create a difficult work environment, and are given titles of officers even though they do not have as much experience or strong work ethic as the refugee staff members. As an example of the unfair treatment of refugee staff members, these staff members often have to queue for long hours simply to receive their payments and such long lines often cause staff members to miss the limited opportunities to receive their payment and in turn delay their receipt of their hard earned payments. As another example, refugee staff members have great difficulty receiving transportation services of the agencies, sometimes even when travel is required by their jobs. Also, refugee staff members are often not given opportunities for training or scholarships, or even if they do receive such opportunities they are not given work permits at the end of even multiple degrees. Moreover, refugee staff members are not allowed to take part in decision making about the refugee programmes ironically that the refugee staff members usually must implement and that are intended to benefit refugee beneficiaries. Similarly, refugee staff members are not afforded an opportunity to participate in planning, writing project proposals, or otherwise participating in any other management functions despite in many circumstances years of experience and knowledge about the refugee communities who are supposedly the beneficiaries of the agencies’ programs and the conditions in which they live and operate. Indeed, refugee staff members are not even provided meaningful opportunities to present feedback that is received, considered, and/or implemented. Incentive Wages At the heart of the exploitation of refugee staff members lies the entire system of “incentive workers.”

The agencies in the camps of Dadaab divide staff into three main categories:

§ International staff

§ National staff

§ Incentive staff

While national and international staff have relatively similar salaries, working conditions, and privileges, the so-called incentive staff are barely paid, are discriminated against, and are often treated with disrespect. The national and international staff members have every thing required for the fulfillment of the respective work such as transport, office tools and equipment, refreshments etc. at their disposal. At the same time, the refugee staff generally have no such access despite the fact that the national and international staff often greatly depend upon the refugee staff in order to carry out their duties, gain access to and understand the refugee communities, and break through language barriers and cultural differences. Yet, while the incentive staff are indeed the back bone of the agency operations in the camps, the relationship between these two sets of staff and the treatment of refugee staff members is horrible.

 The agencies and UNHCR continue to simply pay only meager incentives, which are minimal amounts in and of themselves and are not accompanied by any significant bonuses, benefits, allowances, pensions, separation payments, or other components of standard national and international staff contracts even for refugee staff members that have been working for over a decade. An incentive worker will earn as little as 50 – 90 USD per month, regardless of the number of years of experience, seniority in employment or academic qualifications. Indeed, the skills, academic credentials, and experiences varies significantly across the work force of refugees, ranging from primary school leavers to those with multiple Masters degrees and diplomas who have worked for more than a decade. Yet all are subject to harsh conditions and meager payment. In addition, the ill treatment and lack of respect for refugee staff and their tireless efforts has taken its physical and emotional toll on many staff members, and in fact some young professionals have developed psychological problems due to the frustrations they face while others have chosen to even risk their lives to return to their respective homelands in the hopes of finding an adequate means of survival for themselves and their families. Moreover, the vast disparities between refugee staff and national/international staff continues to create envy and hatred among the staff of the same agency.

 The incentive system is often claimed to be necessary because of limited budgetary resources and because refugee staff members are not allowed to officially work under Kenyan law. However, in actuality, these supposed justifications serve only as mere excuses for the agencies to hide behind so that they can continue to exploit refugee labor. With respect to the limited resources, first of all limited resources can not serve as an excuse for exploiting refugee labour. Moreover, the amount of money that is wasted if not skimmed off the top by the agencies reaches huge amounts; if there are indeed limited resources, the agencies could shift resources away from ineffective trainings, corrupted individuals, and high paid national and international staff in order to adequately pay incentive staff members.

In a related manner, in line with the problem noted above of not including refugee staff in decision-making and managerial tasks: the agencies should “open the books” and allow refugee staff members to be a part of resource allocation decisions. With respect to the inability for refugees to work under Kenyan law, again the agencies and not the Kenyan government are setting the amounts of the incentive wages and if the agencies are able to legally provide incentives at all then the agencies can not point the finger at anyone other than themselves with respect to the exploitative amounts that are arbitrarily set by UNHCR and the agencies. Moreover, UNHCR and agencies are able to obtain work permits for refugee staff members in Nairobi and elsewhere when they deem it appropriate. Further, it is the obligation of UNHCR to advocate on behalf of refugees’ right to work and pressure the government of Kenya to follow its obligations under the Refugee Convention to allow for such rights.

We ask members of the international community to step up for this matter and come forward to help us refugee staff members regain our human dignity and equality and fairness for all in terms wage earning, working conditions and decision-making. Furthermore, we ask that international human rights bodies and the International Labor Organization study and scrutinize the years in which our talents, skills and services have been exploited and abused by the agencies in Dadaab. The title “incentive worker” The title given to the refugees working with the humanitarian agencies is itself exploitative and demeaning. Literally the word incentive means something given to some in order that he/she keeps the same spirit in the course of an operation; however the magnitude of the incentive in the camps of Dadaab is negligible. Considering the workload carried out by the staff or employees drawn from the refugee community, it is the case that refugee workers form the backbone of the humanitarian operations in the Dadaab camps. Indeed, without these workers, the agencies would suffer an acute shortage of human resources. Given the fact that the title “incentive” does not actually sound proper, the refugee workers often feel discouraged and humiliated to be called an incentive worker, which even can weaken the productivity and output of the workers. Furthermore the title incentive widens the already expansive gap between the refugee workers and the national and international staff, which further hinders the cooperation necessary to achieve the important goals of the humanitarian operations in Dadaab.

The more favorable the working conditions, the more efficient an employee will be in her/his daily undertakings, and the more cooperative relations amongst different categories of staff members, the more likely the operations in general will be successful. Thus, if only from the point of view of improving operations in Dadaab, the title of the refugee staff should be changed, the disparity in wages must be closed, and the working conditions must be improved. Harmonization Incentive Document for 2010 A memo concerning the “harmonization of refugees incentive workers wages” was developed by UNHCR in collaboration with all of the NGOs working in the refugee camps; some of the NGOs have shown skepticism about the effects of the document but the policy has been passed without adequate input or consideration of the viewpoints of current refugee staff members. While we recognize the potential positive effect of raising the wages of those agencies paying the lowest amounts, harmonization should only result in a harmonization upward. Moreover, we believe that individuals should be paid wages that are both living wages and appropriate for their jobs and their level of expertise and experience. The document is totally contradicting the conventions to the refuges. Indeed this is a practical evidence that UNHCR is violating the international conventions and protocols relating to the provisions and service of the refuges instead of promoting, it.

Furthermore, the UNHCR has not increased a sigle coin to the refguee workers and what it done was a cheating withno consultation to the concerned parties; indeed the amount that was dedected from the fellow refugee workers were increased for the other fellow refguee workers thus, creating envy and hatered among the working refguee workers!. In this world it has never been noticed that somesone’s pay is lowered without proper justifications.

Despite the fact that many other irrlguralies that can not be not be summarized is ongoing on daily, weekly, monthly or annually basses within the confines of the refugee camps of Dadaab.

Poor Service Delivery

The Dadaab refugee camps were established in the wake the devastating civil wars and persecution in neighboring countries, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Congo, and Eritrea. While we are grateful for the support that has been provided to those who have had to flee from their home countries, it is incredible that nearly twenty years after their adoption, their remains terrible problems in the service delivery and operations of the various agencies operating in the Dadaab camps: UNHCR, WFP, CARE, NRC LWF, IRC GTZ –IS, WINDLE TRUST KENYA, DRC HI, MSF, etc. The food distribution sector, the education sector, the medical care sector, the water and sanitation sector, and the land allocation and shelter sectors provide just a few of the many examples of the continuing and sometimes worsening poor service delivery. Food While the refugees in the Dadaab camps do appreciate the relentless efforts of the international community to ensure that the refugees in the Dadaab camps are given food, we ask the international community if a three (03) kilograms of maize and 50 grams of oil is enough to feed a person for a period of 15 days. This meager amount does not meet international standards. Worse still, a quarter of the amount claimed to be given is often stolen during food distribution, in large part because the workers of the food distribution are not adequately paid and are thus encouraged to steal from the beneficiaries. How can refugees be forced to remain in camps, told for twenty years that they are not allowed to work and raise their own livelihood, and then not be given enough food to feed themselves and their families?

Education

Education in the camps consists of several primary schools and secondary schools and other adult learning literacy institutions. While education, especially at the primary level, is a basic need and right, various factors have limited the quantity and quality of education provided in the camps of Dadaab. At the most basic level, the camps’ population has swollen thrice in recent years, while the capacity has only minimally increased. The focal organization for education in the camps, CARE international in Kenya, has not done a good enough job at increasing the education capacity. Poor quality education is matched with poor infrastructure, as many of the buildings remain the same as those built in 1992 to accommodate some 97,000 refugees while the population has currently grown to nearly 300,000. We have 18 primary schools across the three camps with an average of 3500 pupils per school. These large numbers of learners face many challenges in school. The general ratio of teachers to pupils is 1:80; a situation that has forced many learners to become dropouts, ending up on the market streets. All the 18 mentioned primary school are registered as Kenyan National examination centers while the learners in grade 8 (standard eight) must sit for the national exams in November of each year. The Kenya national examination law states that for a school to be a centre for national examination, there should be a least one trained teacher per class in that school; contrary to this law the schools in Dadaab do not have adequately trained P1 teachers. Yet the ministry of education of the government of Kenya officially has accepted this situation, which has resulted in poor performance in all these 18 schools. Another factor affecting education is the issue of payment. A teacher who is expected to serve as a role model, shape the study and character of various children, and teach the next generation of students, receive some of the lowest wages, lower even than donkey cart riders. The low payment causes more qualified individuals to seek other jobs, and for those who remain as teachers to have little motivation to do a good job in their work. Another problematic feature of the education system is that although as many as 4000 pupils sit for their national exams (KCPE), only roughly 120 students from each camp will have the opportunity to move on to secondary school, and even fewer of those who complete secondary school will have opportunities for further education after high school. Courses in Kenya University and colleges, despite funding by the international community, remains limited.

Medical Care

Medical conditions and nutrition have declined since 1992; down the line diseases are increasing while the interventions are relatively minimal compared to the number of patients in the hospital. In addition, as a result of acute malnutrition in the camps and anemia, child mortality rate is on the rise.

Further, due to ongoing fighting in neighboring Somalia, many refugees continue to come to the camps with numerous diseases, injuries, mental sickness, skin diseases and birth defects, many of which are not able to receive medical attention and are told that their ailment is too complicated to be attended to in the camps. As result many patients will converge at UNHCR field offices for their medical concerns but unfortunately UNHCR protection unit staff will keep refugees waiting and only refer them to the same doctors, nurses, and medical facilities that are already stretched too thins Which are expected to assist roughly three hundred deliveries per month in each of the camps. Currently, we have three medical charity organizations in camps MSF SWIZ in Dagahaley, IRC in Hagadera, and GTZ-IS in Ifo. Yet, especially due to the overcrowding, the medical facilities simply do not meet the incredible medical needs in the camps. Some of the most basic issues in the medical care sector include: – Lack of qualified personnel in hospitals – Lack of medicine/ procured – Lack of emergency equipment / ambulance theatre – Lack of adequate facilities or equipment to deal with many of the ailments Water and Sanitation Water and sanitation services are basic and essential; there are 15 boreholes in the camps which supply safe water to the refugee population since water is chlorinated before being supplied. Those boreholes are managed by borehole attendants or incentive workers who work from 6:30am to 6:30pm ever day, even on weekends or public holidays, since water is needed every hour of the day, and yet only earn minimal wages. Similarly, sanitation, waste management, and carcass collection and disposal, as well meat inspections/hygiene promotion are carried out incentives staff while the national staff seem to sit in the office browsing the internet and pretending to be busy in the offices. (Issues of latrine are handled by NRC whiles other sanitary and hygiene activities are done by CARE – RAP Watsan). In addition, the water crisis in the deeply populated Dadaab camps often results in fighting at the tap stands among families, village mates, and block mates. Sanitation and waste management is also worrying. The current network of latrines is hardly maintained and there are not nearly enough latrines for the Dadaab refugees in general. The latrine system in Dadaab camps is far below internationally accepted and minimum standards, such as 1 latrine for every 20 people.

Land Allocation and Shelter

For security reasons and because of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Somalia, many Somali refugees flee and escape ordeals in the war torn Somalia and seek protection in the Dadaab camps. Yet upon arrival in Dadaab, new arrivals often receive little guidance, orientation, or support to find land, obtain food, seek medical screening or vaccinations, etc. For instance, when a family comes to Dagahaley camp, where registration has been undertaken since 2005, the only thing they receive form UNHCR is a food ration card after waiting for around 10 days.

Finding shelter is often left to the good will of the refugees already living in the camps, despite the fact that severe overcrowding and congestion already exists in the camps. Most of the new arrivals simply build make-shift shelters that are susceptible being washed away by the heavy rains, or they resort to a living under the trees or a “house” where they are exposed to the elements. New arrivals thus face problems related to security, cold, wild animals, poor sanitation, etc. In addition, after registration the new arrivals often do not get non food items that they are intended to receive such as plastic sheeting, a cooking set, Jeri cans, and blankets; even accessing food is hard for new arrivals as they will start getting food from WFP up to 10 days after obtaining registration from UNHCR.

False Information Provided to Community Representatives and Visitors

Although there are the above problems and many more in the refugee camps of Dadaab, often visitors come to Dadaab and are shown a very different picture than the actual reality. Indeed, visitors of various high positions and organizations visit the worlds’ largest refugee camps of Dadaab in north eastern Kenya. Dadaab has in some ways become like a circus display or tourist attraction, with so many visitors coming in and out to see the camps and meet with refugees. Most visitors come with the intention of evaluating how the funds they have donated have been implemented for the target refugees. Visitors who individually only infrequently and occasionally pay visits to the refugee camps are thoroughly misguided about the real information on the ground. Visitors are often taken to pre-arranged places and meet with special people organized to supposedly speak on behalf of the refugees, who often give information that does not inform the visitors of the real circumstances of refugees’ conditions. It is believed that some agency staff members use bribery and other means of influence with refugee leaders whom they think can give substantial and fabricated information to the visitors that will protect and promote the agencies and their supposedly humanitarian work. It is believed that some agency staff members make false promises to such leaders, such as offering resettlement opportunities or contracts in order to entice these leaders to hide the true information about how agencies deal with refugees when high profile visitors come to the refugee camps. In addition, often when high profile visitors come to the camps, their time is scheduled such that they do not meet with many of the true leaders, intellectuals, young leaders, women’s groups and other stakeholders from the refugee community to hear and know from them directly without the presence of the Agency’s representatives. Moreover, the security guards (AGK) are given instructions to be on high alert and only allow those who had been chosen by the agencies to meet with the visitors. For instance during a recent visit by 17 embassies to the refugees camps, our community leaders, intellectual, young leaders and other stakeholders from the refugee community were only given an opportunity to present all of their pressing problems in a mere 45 Minutes, with agency representatives present who could note which refugees spoke and potentially deal harshly with those who spoke after the visitors had left. In addition, on the onset of the arrival of various visitors, agencies attempt to undertake various preparations intended to deceive visitors about the situation in the camps, such as intensive cleaning campaigns, having even senior officers wade through the rubbish, adding new/temporary infrastructure of all sorts (tables, seats, wall hangings/messages, computers, etc.), painting walls, putting up boards and signs to show orgnanized residential and office compounds, and so forth. As but one example, when some high profile visitors were coming to visit the camps in mid-2009, new buildings were constructed, walls were painted, old equipment was hidden, and intense cleaning efforts were undertaken at a surface level in order to deceive the visitors. If the amount of hard work that was taken to make these preparations was done on a daily basis to actually address the problems facing those in the camps rather than simply providing surface level window dressing to please visiting donors and officials, the situation in the camps could much improve. As another example, when an envoy of ambassadors visited the WFP food distributed centre, all of the former containers used for distributing food (which had been cut in size in order to limit the amount of food given to each refugee) were set aside and every individual was allowed to receive a full ration. But these measures only existed during the few minutes when the visitors were present.

 Taken together, the agencies make significant efforts to hide the truth of the situation of refugees in the camps of Dadaab when visitors arrive. We therefore make a heartfelt request to the Intentional Community, high profile visitors, media, government officials, human rights bodies, independent journalists and other concerned parties to always think beyond the box while visiting the Dadaab refugee camps, to be skeptical of what they are being shown, to try to ensure that they take some time to talk privately to a number of different refugees, and to visit unplanned areas in order to uncover the true living situation of the refugees and hear their voices longing to determine their uncertain future! Abuse from UNHCR Officers in Dadaab against refugee youth advocating for their rights. National and international staff members of UNHCR and other agencies in the camps of Dadaab often attempt to harass and intimidate refugees who advocate for their own rights. As a recent example, the UNHCR Head of Sub Office, in the presence of elder witnesses, threatened various refugee youth who intended to attend a meeting at his office, shouting that in case any youth came into his (UNHCR) office he would call the police and arrest them. Similarly, the senior Protection Officer has often failed to protect the rights of the refugees while allegations of harassment and human rights abuses flood his office in Dadaab. If UNHCR jeopardizes and denies the basic rights of the refugees in Dadaab Refugee Camps and denies the opportunity for refugees to advocate for their own rights; who will then advocate for the rights of the thousands of the disadvantaged societies in Dadaab camps? It can only be concluded that the UN and other agencies do not wish to see a community who can manage their own affairs independently. It can only also be concluded that the agencies in Dadaab are more political agencies than they are humanitarian agencies, with many agencies undertaking similar tasks and doing little to actually assist refugees as they claim. Moreover, the reports shared by the agencies with the donors often provide false information and figures, including but not limited to false information about living conditions, security, service delivery, movement, education, development, health, water and sanitation, food, and services they allegedly provide but often either do in a sub-standard manner or never have even undertaken at all. While agency staff often argue that refugees have no right to complain because the services they receive are free, it must be noted that agency staff also receive free of charge much better services than the refugees receive, including in the areas of water, medical care, food, housing, electricity, etc. We request from the international community and other concerned parties to help us mange our own affairs and that affect us by giving us a chance to get the jobs we can do for own selves.

Conclusion

 In sum, we wish to reiterate that we hope that the international community will hear our cries and undertake efforts to end the exploitation and abuse we face by pressing for an end to restricted movement, a reform of exploitative labor policies, an improvement in service provision, a greater allowance for participation in decisions about service provision to the refugee communities and refugee staff members, and the end to the deception and abusive practices of the Kenyan government, UNHCR, and the other agencies operating in the camps of Dadaab toward the refugees and the international community. Furthermore, the International community and the concerned goverments should watchout carefully the actions of the govermentof kenya, UNHCR and the other Agenceis opertaing in the region decissively and should held account for any inhuman acts. Thanks and looking forward to your immediate durable solutions.

Kind Regards,

Refugee Silent Welfare Committees

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