“Put Yourself in Their Shoes’


Interview with Michael Adams, Director of Operations for CARE”s Refugee Assistance Program in Dadaab
With an influx of almost 1,000 refugees per day, most of them from Somalia, humanitarian assistance in the refugee camps of Dadaab, Kenya is becoming more difficult each day. Michael Adams has been responsible for CARE”s Refugee Assistance Program for the last two years and talks about the current challenges and the road ahead.

How does the situation compare now to the beginning of the year?

The big difference is simply the high number of new arrivals. They have stretched our capacity to deliver the essential services for humanitarian aid, especially because many families are settling in informal, undesignated areas where there is poor access to services. They are scattered around the camps, but it is hard to reach them quickly enough to prevent further suffering. After 20 years of providing humanitarian aid in the camps, CARE and other agencies are now confronted with a new complication: in order to meet the increasing needs, we have to stretch the resources that we have as much as possible to help all new people arriving in very weak and vulnerable conditions. Another complication is that the refugees are taking up more and more space outside the formal settlements which is having a detrimental effect on the local environment; they need firewood to cook which results in the deforestation of the sparse land which in turn creates conflict with the host communities whose grazing land is being destroyed. In the first five months of 2011, we had weekly registrations of about 2,000 people on average. In July, this number went up to more than 5,000. And this only counts the individuals being registered; we currently have a backlog of about 35,000 people still waiting for registration.

What is the difference between those refugees who have been here for some time and those who are new arrivals?

Most refugees here are quite resourceful, that is natural in any setting. People are not going to sit around for 20 years; they want to get on with their life. There are thriving markets in each of the three camps where you can charge your phone for 25 Kenyan shillings at a shop that has a small generator, you can find tailors and hairdressers and so on. Those who have a little bit of money buy products from the local markets in the area and sell them in the camps. But the newly arrived families, those who have fled drought, poverty and instability in Somalia within the last few weeks, they come here with next to nothing, barely carrying clothes on their backs. So, the provision of basic emergency services such as food, water, health and shelter are very important to sustaining life. As a measure of how serious this crisis is, the refugee community that has been long settled here in Dadaab have come together to compliment the international response. A Muslim charity created from within the camp population is now providing clothes and shoes at the reception areas to help the aid agencies. This is really encouraging for us to see because it demonstrates this crisis affects everyone. And help comes from many directions.

The areas around the camps are also suffering from drought and chronic poverty. How can you balance assistance for refugees and Kenyans?

This is a very important concern. People outside the camps are also in dire need of assistance, and of course they see the services provided in the camps and want to receive similar support. CARE has been working in the region for years, and we are now scaling up our emergency regional response to meet the ever increasing need beyond the Dadaab refugee camps. But we cannot feed and water everyone in and around the camps… we simply don”t have the capacity. The mere existence of the camps, offering relative safety and security and access to basic essential services, that is like a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak and desolate environment for all those Kenyans who also suffer from the impacts of severe drought. Ready markets and access to trade and business offer alternative livelihoods or income generation opportunities for families no longer able to continue their pastoralist lifestyle. The refugee operations bring jobs, businesses and contracts. The area of Dadaab has grown from 30,000 people to more than 200,000 people over a twenty year period. This said, the camps are stretching the existing resources and the environment to a point where it will be very difficult and slow to recover. CARE has always engaged with the host community, they have always been a part of our response in this region. Our support to the cost community has included activities such as borehole maintenance through repairs of the generators and pumps, chlorination of the boreholes to reduce contamination; we created water pans for livestock watering, built classrooms and trained teachers. And we are currently looking into ways to provide even more support. But we also have to think in terms of how this can be sustainable in some way, because there will always be droughts in this area. We need to find ways to build resilience; boreholes can only be a part of the solution. The key is to support the communities to help themselves. Let”s say through cash transfers so that they can hire their own water trucking, by training to maintain boreholes, by conflict-resolution forums. But all of this costs money and unless there is a severe humanitarian crisis and people here about it in the news, aid agencies really struggle to obtain funding for these activities.

What role does the Kenyan government play?

Kenya has had its doors open for 20 years, and continues to keep it open. They are not turning people away. The international community has provided some support, but nowhere near enough, and before pointing a finger at the Kenyan authorities we have to remember the impact this refugee population has on both the communities and the environment. And with Somalia still lacking security and governance, there is no solution for the refugees to go home again. Kenya has a right to continue ringing the warning bell, and the country cannot carry the burden by itself for another 20 years.

What are the biggest challenges right now?

As for food distribution, WFP and CARE have done an exceptional job to provide food when and where necessary. Every refugee receives an average of more than 500g of food per day. But it remains a challenge to disseminate information about how much and where food is available for the new arrivals. When so many people are coming in, we don”t know where they are coming from and where they end up. Before, when the number of new arrivals was still manageable, the information focused on reception centers. But now we need to do outreach into the so-called influx areas around the camps, where people settle while waiting for registration.

As I”ve mentioned before, there is also a backlog of people received but not yet officially registered as refugees. Since there is no screening center at the border, people arrive here and have to go through the registration process, which takes time. People who have been received, but not yet registered, get food for 21 days and some supplies such as water cans, blankets, cooking items, soap etc. But if they have to wait longer than those 21 days to get registered, we have to organize a second round of distributions. Another problem is transport, because many families settle quite far from the reception areas. So many single mothers or people suffering from weakness and malnourishment have to pay someone to carry their food home. This is a big concern for us, so we are working very hard to fill that gap.

And then there is water: CARE has done quite well in providing water to the influx areas to new refugees, where we can we”ve been able to extend piping from the existing water lines out, so that pressured water is provided from boreholes to temporary taps. CARE is also trucking water to temporary tanks and taps. But we still face challenges in that some of the current borehole systems bordering the influx have insufficient pressure to fill up the water tanks more quickly, so in some cases this leads to long queues. We are replacing these low pressure boreholes so we can provide enough water to the refugees. Technically, it is always a challenge to bring in the equipment and set up a structure in the middle of nowhere. But water is such a crucial part of the response that we cannot slow down now.

Protection is also a big issue. The families arriving here, especially single mothers and young children, are often very tired, malnourished and sometimes sick. They are the most vulnerable having traveled many weeks in the sun with little food and or water with barely enough clothing to cover their back. They need to get support as soon as they arrive. The health agencies are trying to keep up but the malnutrition rates are still high. We need to help them settle in a more secure community environment where they are not exposed to sexual violence or banditry and close to essential services. However, we simply don”t have the people-power to reach all of them with the information they need to know to help them. In an effort to address this issue, CARE has set up temporary kiosks at strategic locations in the outskirts of camps where people can come and seek help and information. It also acts as a base from which our community development mobilisers move out on foot into the influx areas to talk with as many new arrivals as possible giving them basic information: where to get food and water and that both are provided for free, where to seek counseling services for those who are survivors of conflict and or violence etc.

What are you most worried about for the months to come?

At current rates of arrival we will still have significant challenges to meet the needs. We have new extension areas where people will relocate to, but if the influx continues, those will be full by the end of the year, so we will not have been able to decongest the current camps as hoped. We also don”t know where all of the refugees are going when they arrive here, some go into the camps so that the density increases, there”s encroachment around schools, youth play areas, community centers and so on. This puts an extra burden on the existing refugee communities. Another thing we are very worried about is the levels of malnutrition seen in the new arrivals. Food needs to have sufficient caloric value to reduce malnutrition rates, but this is also more expensive.

How do you ensure that women are protected in the camps?

Just as in any city of this size around the world, we cannot fully ensure that women are protected in the camps. There are too little police officers per person and camp, protection remains a major challenge. Women generally don”t go out after dusk, but there is some community patrolling during day time. There are police stations in the camps. Imagine a city of 400,000 people without enough police. But previously settled refugees have been able to form community support networks and work well with the religious and community leaders. The most serious challenge we face now are the new arrivals. They are exhausted, uninformed about where to get help and an easy target for abuse and violence. CARE works directly with the communities and religious centers themselves to prevent violence through information sharing, educational sessions on conflict management, and to support existing community structures, neighbors watching out for each other. For example there are referral systems: if a woman feels threatened, she can come to a CARE office and seek refuge and may be brought to a safe house. We also have helpdesks in the police stations. But we want to extend our services, currently there is about 1 counselor for 30,000 refugees.

It is impressive to see our counselors in action. We have this one very confident young woman, Fardoza, and I recently accompanied her to one of the communities. She goes to one of the camp neighborhoods and sort of holds court, meeting with young men and women who have very set ideas about women”s place in society. And she challenges it in a very positive way and generates discussion. People can connect to her because she is their age, and since she is a Somali Kenyan, she speaks their language.

Do you lobby for the refugees to be granted citizenship or work permits in Kenya?

This is an issue for the Government of Kenya. Our focus is on providing services and working to reduce refugee vulnerability and to maintain their dignity as much as possible. The best case scenario, what we are all hoping for, is of course a return to peace in Somalia. But would all refugees go home then? There is now a second generation born in the camps who have been educated with Kenyan curriculum, and who have never been to their home country. But I still think that many of them would like to go home. And then they will have the unique chance to build their nation with the skills they have acquired here in the camp schools. We are now seeing the same in South Sudan: Refugees who were educated in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps as well have now returned home and are a vital part of nation building.

What other issues are important for you to communicate to everyone who is now interested in Dadaab?

I have been saddened by the voices from home who say things like charity begins at home, and that we shouldn”t be helping because there is so much corruption, or that we have already given too much. Every person in the camps of Dadaab is a refugee. But let”s not forget that people don”t want to be here, they want their freedom to move like anyone else, to be free to access higher education, better business opportunities. Even though there is no fence around the camps, they are legally not allowed to work in Kenya and are restricted to the regions of the camps. And what is most heartbreaking is the daily struggle for dignity. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine having to line up for food twice a month, for 20 years now. These are highly proud people, and a man in this culture who cannot provide for his family – well, that is just very hard for everyone. A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to a refugee who was previously a full time employee for CARE in Somalia and now cannot work legally here in Kenya. Though we cannot give them legal jobs, every agency employs workers from among the refugee committee to help with distributions, translations, housekeeping of the compounds etc. They receive a salary and can thus support their families. But like I said, it is not a regular job. He would be very well qualified to be a part of our operation, with all his skills and knowledge of CARE. But all we can do is employ him as an incentive worker. That is one of the many limits they are constantly facing in Dadaab.

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