Refugees are big business for the UN

In Nairobi, there is resentment that asylum-seekers are treated better than local people

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees hosted the first ever TEDx event in a refugee camp in early June. Halima Aden, hijab-wearing Vogue supermodel, attended; it was the first time the 20-year-old had been back to Kakuma, northern Kenya, since she was resettled in the US as a nine-year-old. Four planes and eight flights delivered around 350 dignitaries and VIPs from around the world to participate in making refugees cool again. The one-day extravaganza, which is estimated to have cost close to $400,000, raised a range of issues questioning long-held assumptions in the humanitarian sphere.

As the paradigm shift hits, the UN is looking to change a policy that after 25 years is no longer sustainable. With increased domestic pressure in donor countries to justify spending, the focus has transformed from providing cradle-to-grave aid to empowering refugees to find solutions for themselves.

TEDx, the elite media organisation that posts aspirational online talks, showed refugees as agents of positive change and valuable members of society, not simply a drain on host country resources. 

At the same time the UNHCR is under fierce pressure to reduce its expenditure and is making millions of dollars of savings with staff being moved to where they are actually needed.

The UNHCR’s mandate is to protect refugees, safeguard their fundamental human rights and help to build a better future. But critics said the Kakuma event was a waste of money which could have been better spent on a new hospital or a school. Those in favour said that by raising the profile of the issue, it did incalculable good.

Former UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, now UN Secretary-General, is trying to reform a system with which he is intimately acquainted, but there doesn’t seem much reason to be positive. Refugees are big business, and subliminal pressure exists to keep the system going. That’s one reason refugees have been made into needy victims, who need supplies of tarpaulins, non-food items, sanitation, water and tents, all of which translates into money. If people are seen as capable of standing on their own feet, those contracts aren’t needed, and without victims, there’s no business. Why find a solution if it threatens livelihoods?

Spending power in Kakuma, whose regugees are mainly Christians from South Sudan, amounts to $56 million a year. The current notion that you can turn refugees into Einsteins and entrepreneurs is simply unrealistic, because only about 15 per cent have that kind of potential, while many of them will remain vulnerable.
For the most part, refugees are kept outside mainstream Kenyan society. For them to be integrated, the most viable solution, laws need to change. In this regard TEDx was preaching to the converted. Few Kenyan MPs outside those representing the affected areas attended. The global issue of who is Kenyan is key because Kenyan nationality is by only descent or long marriage. Despite being born in Kenya or living here since the early 1990s, many refugees remain without documentation, meaning they can’t work, access government buildings or travel freely within the country. While there are no fences or barriers around the camps, and people come and go at will, their futures remain limited.

Kenyans see refugees from countries like Somalia as having much more than they themselves do. Local communities look on as they are provided with shelter, food and daily allowances. So in Dadaab, once the largest refugee camp in the world, Kenyans have taken to registering as refugees. Considering the needs of the host community is part of the paradigm shift. Kenyans think: why not milk the system, as the Kenyan government and the UN do? Those who work in and understand the UN system can take sick leave for years on full pay while their post remains vacant. These are some of the excesses donor countries are aware of: others include UN protocols where it can take half a year to buy a pen or organise an event. It costs thousands more in paperwork simply to buy a car. A few months ago, a three-day sexual misconduct workshop was hastily assembled in Naivasha after it was found staff had extorted money from refugees by promising them resettlement in the US and Canada, something only the host countries can offer. At the out-of-town resort, many rooms were left empty after UN staff told participants they couldn’t stay overnight.

With donors focused on other conflicts, they are also getting wise. EU countries are providing aid to at-risk countries in order to keep potential refugees at home. Until the root causes of the problems are addressed, the refugee crisis will continue and less than one per cent of over 65 million refugees worldwide will be resettled. It can take more than a decade to get through the resettlement pipelines. Repatriation is the number one solution — getting people back to their homes where they have land and family — but in many places, it will take decades, if ever, for peace to be established.

In the new landscape, the new buzz-phrases are “dramatic shifts in our mindset” and “taking account of the host community”. The UNHCR has spent $1.5 billion on refugees in Kenya over the past seven years; it hasn’t benefited the host community much at all.

These days when the global question is “who belongs”, refugees need to  be considered as “legitimate children of the land”. For that to be realised the political landscape needs to change — and not just in Kenya.

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