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Letter from Nairobi
|Written By Abby Deshman
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After three months in Nairobi, I have concluded that the city is characterized by paradoxes. The hub of East Africa’s humanitarian-aid machine, it showcases large white UN 4x4s running rampant through the city streets, some of the best sushi in the world, and what tour companies advertise to be Africa’s largest slum.

I am interning at the United Nations High Commission for Refugee's office in Nairobi, which also has its own seemingly irreconcilable roles. Usually one of the UNHCR’s main tasks within a country is ensuring that the national government is providing adequate assistance and applying internationally acceptable standards when protecting refugees. Since 1991, however, Kenya has handed over all responsibility for refugee status determination and humanitarian assistance to the United Nations. This puts the UNHCR in the difficult position of managing the national refugee determination system, monitoring government acceptance of the UNHCR-recognized refugees, and monitoring its own compliance with international standards. It is common to hear refugees saying the organization is not an active and vibrant advocate of a marginalized population, but rather a bureaucratic gate-keeper that fails to recognize their daily struggles.

I am interning in the Protection Delivery Unit, the legal section charged with assessing the security risks to urban refugees and providing protection solutions where the risks are found credible. The urban refugee population, however, is not an easy one to work with. Many are survivors of extreme violence or torture, and in Nairobi, an insecure city at the best of times, many incidents that would be common-place for the city’s poor, such as muggings and assaults, are perceived by the traumatized refugee as continued foreign-state-agent persecution. Sorting out who is actively being pursued by foreign government operatives and who is haunted by ghosts of a past government.

The living conditions of Kenya’s refugees also make finding credible security concerns a loaded assessment. Like most other African countries, the government of Kenya has implemented an official encampment policy,  which requires refugees to live in the designated camps along the Somali and Sudanese borders. As a result, many refugees who choose, or are forced by security problems, to live in Nairobi, face regular harassment and possible detention by police. Furthermore, although refugees theoretically have the right to work, only a handful of work permits have been issued. Because, for the most part, UNHCR only gives material assistance in the camps, this leaves urban refugees with the untenable choice of either working illegally, often in exploitative conditions, or starving. All this is set against the perception that refugees are a drag on the economy and cut into the very limited supply of Kenyan jobs.

The complete lack of local integration prospects means the majority of refugees pin their hopes on third-country resettlement. Although an extremely small percentage of refugees are actually resettled, many still submit multiple security claims in the hopes their claims of security problems in Nairobi will trigger whatever processes are necessary to convince UNHCR to submit their case to a third country. Addressing the imagined, alleged, and real security concerns of a desperate and traumatized population is a sensitive task.

There are signs that things are moving forward in Kenya. In December 2006, the government passed the first-ever legislation governing refugees, and has indicated it will take responsibility for refugee status determination.

I am assisting with training and sensitization sessions for immigration officials, judiciary, police, and pro bono lawyers who will be among the first to work with the new bill. Change, however, is slow, and many of the refugees I see at the protection desk are more worried about where they will sleep tonight than about the new legislation.

Perhaps, then, I should have not been surprised when the second refugee I saw in Kenya calmly smashed a computer on the floor in front of me before he started to pull the metal rod out of his sleeve. Unfortunately, however, the frustration, trauma, and desperation that led that man to his violent outburst are widespread, and for most refugees, there appears to be no real short- or long-term solution in sight.


Abby Deshman is a law student at the University of Toronto.

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