The novel coronavirus, so-called COVID-19, is a very dangerous communicable disease that has taken thousands of lives around the world already, and is affecting millions. The effects of the deadly virus are even more devastating in places like refugee camps, which have suffered prolonged “warehousing” as well as social and economic deprivation for many years.
Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya is one of such camps. Kakuma was established in 1992 and is located in the north west of Kenya in close proximity to the borders of Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. According to UNHCR, the population in the camp has reached almost 160,000 registered refugees in 2020. The camp residents originate from South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda and other countries. Although aid organizations provide access to material and legal assistance, refugee lives are often shaped by further difficulties. In addition to Kakuma’s generally remote location and everyday challenges of livelihoods, safety, and access to services, the current risks of COVID-19 further complicate the lives of the people in Kakuma.
Considering the health risks involved, and people’s understandable worries about the pandemic, it is essential to prepare and set up strategies to protect the camp population and inform them about risks and appropriate safety measures. This includes not stoking panic about what has happened in Kakuma since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on 25 May 2020. While various protection and prevention strategies have been adopted, these have also caused frustration and anxiety among camp residents.
To support sharing relevant information in the communities, the refugee-led media organization Kakuma News Reflector, or short KANERE, has increased its efforts to report on the crisis and its impacts on camp life in past months.
Economic Effects of Corona responses in Kakuma
As a part of the national lockdown in Kenya, many of the camps’ businesses are also closed and a curfew is being imposed. As of 27 March 2020, people in Kakuma have to stay inside from 7pm to 5am, which is enforced by police. Since 7 June 2020, the nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew from 9pm to 4am is effective for 30 days. While these restrictions are supposed to ensure social distancing and thus keep people safe, they also have more wide-ranging consequences. It is most likely that the economic losses currently experienced are not due to the sickness itself but rather because of uncoordinated efforts to ensure food security, provide proper medical care, and safeguard the wellbeing of refugees in Kakuma. For example, the slowing down of economic activities, driven by the fear of COVID-19, has caused lay-offs and widespread decline of income. In addition, many in Kakuma lack access to durable solutions, which have been put on hold during the pandemic, and people now wait to be resettled at a later date.
These limitations are profound burden for refugee workers who rely on casual or incentive earning as compared to Kenyan or international staff who work under proper contracts within the same environment. Without their incentive jobs and steady income, refugees and their families find it hard to cope with prolonged curfews and lack of employment in Kenyan refugee camps.
Stress and Trauma
Importantly, and in addition to the economic impacts, Kakuma’s residents also fear the virus. Kakuma is overcrowded, sanitation is poor, and water is usually being rationed. Residents do not have sufficient space at homes to isolate sick members of their families in case the virus spreads across the camp. This makes physical distancing measures a matter of privilege.
Kakuma is already a confined, desolate context, and imposing further movement restrictions is going to affect people living in small tents, thatched houses, or accommodation made of corrugated iron sheets. It is traumatizing to not be able to venture into public spaces without protective gear like mask and sanitizers, or to not know if it is safe to meet friends and neighbors at the marketplace. Even though there are attempts from some fellow refugees to make and provide free mask from locally made garments, it has proven to be hard because a lot of the materials needed were not available to local tailors due to the lockdown who usually purchase them from cities in Kenya’s south. People are understandably worried about their lives and the safety of their neighbors when out in public or when queuing for food and water.
Information is key! Efforts by KANERE
Raising awareness and sharing information locally is now more important than ever. Exactly this is what Kakuma News Reflector (KANERE) is devoted to do. Launched in 2008 as a news endeavor run by refugee journalists in Kakuma, KANERE operates as an independent refugee media outlet following the vision of a free refugee press. Ten journalists and four editors are involved in KANERE, most in Kakuma and some from a distance like myself. On our website, we highlight that “we speak in respect of human rights and the rule of law in order to create a more open society in refugee camps and to develop a platform for fair public debate on refugee affairs.”
Since the pandemic started, we have expanded our efforts to reach the residents of Kakuma and Kalobeyei settlement to share relevant information about local developments. This was also made possible through KANERE’s cooperation with GIZ’s Civil Peace Service and its partner organization Kenya Community Media Network (KCOMNET). On our website, we discuss how food assistance is distributed in anticipation of potential lockdown, which prevention strategies are adopted and thus how people can stay safe, which information is disseminated from NGOs in response to COVID-19, and we address common myths circulating in Kakuma about the virus.
To ensure that we can reach the largest number of people, we share information not only through our website but also on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as locally. For every publication of KANERE, we have a limited amount of prints for circulation at major gathering points such as restaurants, libraries, and by making announcements on the notice boards across the camps to reach the most vulnerable members of the community. Moreover, as an independent refugee press, KANERE provides a window for the world to learn about Kakuma, its refugee populations, and share information between camp residents and advocates for refugee rights.
Through our ongoing commitment for more than a decade, we have maintained close contact with the community and have been able to build trust. In a recent interview with Aljazeera, I explained how many of Kakuma’s residents accept and trust KANERE as a reliable source of information even more than aid organizations.
Life in refugee camps like Kakuma is difficult – with or without the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 outbreak risks accelerating already existing problems for refugees.
Even before the pandemic, the lack of survival options was palpable in many refugee camps, including Kakuma, in which economic need, malnutrition, and unavoidable illnesses are rife. These issues are likely to intensify due to the threats of the novel coronavirus. It can lead to deaths over a long period of time if the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other camp governing bodies with the responsibility for refugee protection fail to set up proper life guarding measures.
Coronavirus has invoked widespread fear in Kakuma and around the world. Now, more than ever, it is essential to continue with a process of learning, adapting, and getting used to using personal and community-based safety measures – including washing our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoiding close contacts with people, covering coughs and sneezes, and maintaining at least two meters of social distancing. However, in large refugee camps like Kakuma such safety measures are not easy to implement. People need to know about exactly which measures they can and must take to stay safe. This is where KANERE can make a difference. As journalists, we are devoted to exercise our right to freedom of information and in light of the pandemic, we increase our efforts to share scientific knowledge and government advice with Kakuma’s residents. Due to the chronic funding shortages, KANERE is always seeking support and donations to operate and continue this work.
This blog post was also published in German and is part of the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees on the FluchtforschungsBlog.