The accidental city : violence, economy and humanitarianism in Kakuma refugee camp Kenya

Jansen, B.J.


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.