The accidental city : violence, economy and humanitarianism in Kakuma refugee camp Kenya
In this research I examine social ordering processes in Kakuma refugee camp in
Kenya. I view the camp as an accidental city, by which I challenge the image of
the camp as a temporary and artificial waiting space or a protracted refugee crisis
per se. The reference to the city is both metaphorically and physically relevant. First,
the metaphorical dimension of the city places refugees and their negotiation of
space into the realm of the normal and the possible, contrary to prevailing notions
of the camp as an abnormality. In this thesis, I analyze the ways in which refugees
settle down in the camp and inhabit the humanitarian space. From a physical
perspective, the camp has grown into a center of facilities in a wider region of
insecurity, war and marginalized pastoral lands in a semi-desert. Compared to the
region, the camp resembles a multicultural and cosmopolitan place, with various
connections to the wider world.
I have analyzed five domains in which social ordering takes place:
humanitarian governance, the camp as a warscape, the camp economy, third
country resettlement and repatriation. In all these domains, refugees seek to
organize themselves and their surroundings vis-à-vis the humanitarian agencies
and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In chapter two, I describe how UNHCR de facto became the government of
the refugee camp on behalf of the Kenyan government. In this capacity it operates
in a confusion of roles; it is both implementer of aid and assistance in the general
administration of the camp, and monitor and guard of States’ obligations to
respect refugee rights. This makes that UNHCR and its implementing NGOs not
only offer, preach and teach entitlements, but are simultaneously for a large part
responsible in their delivery and for the decision of who is granted inclusion in the
camp’s services. I have recognized this in the notion of an entitlement arena,
which highlights how refugees maneuver in the grey area between UNHCR’s
camp governing and rights monitoring roles. The entitlements born out of refugee
and human rights then translate into expectations and promises that become part
of negotiations seeking to align, dodge or alter the camp’s organization. For a
large part, this negotiation takes places along the interfaces between UNHCR and
its implementing partners, and the refugees. By employing participation strategies
in the governing of the camp, UNHCR contributed to the creation of subauthorities,
which play an important role in the referral of refugees within the aid
system, but also in the identification of vulnerabilities.
In the domain of the warscape, I analyze how boundaries between refugee
leadership and rebel movements have blurred, adding and altering these subauthorities.
Apart from the camp having a function in the broader war tactics of
rebel movements in the past and in the present, the notion of the camp as a
warscape highlights how the politics of war and the dynamics of conflict reach
and partly order the camp. This warscape notion, instead of being problematic, is
analyzed from a perspective of place making, through which refugees claim
political agency and room to organize themselves vis-à-vis the refugee regime,
thereby reshaping the living arrangements of the camp and organizing where
people settle on the basis of ethnic and violent histories in the past and in the
camp. This authority transcends into everyday forms of power and governance,
largely because of an understanding of imminent and symbolic violence between
the different groups.
In a socio-economic domain, I describe how refugees build on the resource of
aid and create a diversity of livelihood strategies. Aid, more than just a handout or
a necessity, is comparable to a natural resource in the contours of the camp. For
refugees, once they are allowed inside the camp, aid is simply there. It is
something one can vie for, and can harvest, until it is depleted. I describe this as a
process of “digging aid,” comparable to subsistence farming. On the basis of this
aid, a camp economy has grown, with linkages to informal and formal regional
and international economies. The development of the camp economy has
stimulated socio-economic changes. The local community has found a resource in
the camp and “dropout pastoralists” have settled around the camp in a way that is
comparable to the ways urban migrants flock to cities. The camp represents a
cosmopolitan place where people of different backgrounds come together, meet
each other, and adapt to each other.
The fourth domain, described in chapter five, concerns the camp as a portal
for resettlement. The perspective of third country resettlement in Kakuma has
both been a reason for people to come to the camp, and a phenomenon that
greatly contributed to its development. Resettlement can thus be seen as both an
opportunity as a solution to which people seek access. With this, resettlement
became an organizing principle for people in the camp. The large volume of
resettlement from Kakuma contributes to the character of the camp as a transitory
space. Many informants came to Kakuma not so much to return “home” again,
but to move forward instead. Kakuma as a portal offers migratory routes to those
who manage to be considered eligible according to the agencies’ and receiving
countries’ qualifications. Although imagined as a measure to protect those most in
need, in reality, becoming eligible for resettlement involves a combination of
factors, including access to the agencies and a vulnerability or a fitting identity. It
is here that the warscape and the entitlement arena intertwine to become the
system of resettlement.
Chapter six shows how repatriation becomes subject to maneuvering. Over the
course of my fieldwork, peace broke out in Sudan and repatriation was initiated.
The prospect was complicated, however. In Sudan, public amenities such as
schools, health care, and water were scarce or lacking. Towns and urban centers
were still largely under Arabic influence. The result was that the humanitarian
government in the form of UNHCR and the NGOs sought to control return
movements, while refugees sought to strategize and organize return in their own
ways, and the Sudanese authorities in Sudan sought to keep the refugees in Kenya
until further notice.
The notion of the camp as an accidental city comes back in that the camp was
recognized for its facilities and weighed against the lack thereof in Sudan. New
arrivals similarly came for education, or for basic amenities and even food.
Refugees from other nationalities had concerns because of a possible closure of
Kakuma. Many of them had a rebel or military past, or feared being regarded as
rebels in their home countries, and thus saw limited opportunities to go home.
Also people from town were unsure of what would remain of Kakuma in the
event of the camp being closed.
This research contributes to earlier work in earlier stages of refugee hosting in
other camps, and covering specific subthemes. With the analogy to the city, I
bring together those subthemes in one common frame. The result can in part be
understood as a history of the specific camp of Kakuma. This nicely captures the
title of this research, for something that gains a history breaks free from the frame
of temporality, perhaps by accident. With this approach, this book is not only
relevant for social science or anthropology, but also as a historical record.
Protracted refugee camps constitute an experiment in humanitarian action, but
also in thinking about questions of governance and security in refugee hosting
contexts in developing countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nepal,
Thailand and other locations where the content of this book may be relevant.