Kenya: Refugees to be welcomed, not rejected
20 June 2009

Many refugees, like this Somali woman and her child in Kakuma refugee camp, are stuck in limbo, unable to go back home yet without perspectives to live a normal life in exile. (Sophie Vodvarka/JRS)
“Societies and governments tend to perceive refugees as a problem. But, we need to see that behind the large numbers are human beings like you and me."

Kenya, 20 June 2009 — Despite the improved perception of refugees in some regions, refugees in many parts of the world still face hostility and neglect. They are often denied their fundamental human rights and experience rejection and discrimination.

On World Refugee Day, Jesuit Refugee Service/Eastern Africa urges governments to create an environment conducive to the reception and integration of refugees. Steps should be taken to grant them safety and protection, to ensure that their needs are addressed and durable solutions found. JRS also calls on citizens to welcome refugees with a spirit of solidarity and respect instead of fearing or rejecting them.

“Societies and governments tend to perceive refugees as a problem. But, we need to see that behind the large numbers are human beings like you and me. They have been uprooted from their countries by conflict, persecution or violence and JRS has seen their courage and resilience as they struggle for a better future,” says Fr. Frido Pflueger SJ, Director of JRS/Eastern Africa. 

In many cases, refugees are subject to exploitation and abuse, and their situation is aggravated by the lack of networks for social support, problems with languages and unfamiliarity with the local customs. Women and children, who make up 80 percent of the refugee population, are most affected, and are particularly vulnerable.

Leading by example

Positive examples across East Africa give reason to hope that the perception and reception of refugees has improved. In 2006 Uganda adopted a Refugee Act that accords refugees all the rights stipulated in the UN and African Union conventions, including freedom of movement and the right to work. For years, Uganda has allocated land to Sudanese refugees in the north, instead of pursuing a strict policy of encampment.

“Refugees are not criminals. They are unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control which have forced them to flee, leaving everything behind. Many are isolated and without support once they arrive. Instead of stigmatising them we should welcome them,” says Kampala-based JRS worker Stephen Kuteesa.

However, difficulties remain in many countries where the needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced people are not being met. Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya which currently hosts a population of 42,000 refugees is an example for a protracted refugee situation. 10 percent of the refugees in Kakuma have lived in the camp for over 10 years, some longer than 15 with no perspective and no hope of a durable solution. This causes dependency and problems with the local community.

Urban migration leads to a new kind of refugee

Increased numbers of refugees move to urban centres, seeking employment and a better future. Of the over 35,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Nairobi only those who are economically independent are officially permitted by the government. Many have to cope without material assistance and legal protection. They are vulnerable to police arrests and often face hostility from the local population.

Fr. Pflueger SJ says “How human a society is can be measured by how it treats its weaker members. We are all part of one humanity and we need to respect each others dignity. How do we treat those who have lost everything? If we don’t treat them with respect, who will?”

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