This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, with his op-ed "Off the Radar Screen: Covid-19 and inequality," foreign policy expert and G|O contributor Daniel Warner follows up on Djemila Carron and Paul O’Keeffe’s recent tribune, "Potemkin Villages and Refugees Camps during the Coronavirus Crisis." His essay is below.
Carron and O'Keefe's piece has elicited many reactions. So, over the next few days, we will return to the question of how best to economically empower refugees. Starting with an interview and profile of Roberta Ventura, a social entrepreneur who left the world of hedge funds to successfully work with refugees in Jordan.
We will also focus on the roots of the distrust towards international relief agencies, a very complex issue. This constructive discussion should not obfuscate the extraordinary work being done in the field by the relief agencies. Writing this from Geneva, we are keenly aware of their absolute dedication to their mission and their work. Yet, as one of our sources told us, “what is totally infuriating for me is that it all goes wrong in the field mostly because the humanitarians refuse to engage meaningfully with the local population they are supposed to help.”
Potemkin Villages and Refugees Camps during the Coronavirus Crisis
By Jemila Carron and Paul O'Keeffe*
As is to be expected in times of pandemic, tensions run high. In places like refugee camps, these tensions can increase the pressure placed on people whose limits are already at breaking point.
As academics working with refugee populations in camps for the last 5 years, we are used to hearing refugee students praise the opportunities made available to them by the humanitarian organizations who work with them but also complain about the lack of appropriate services and endemic violence that runs deep in the forced migration management system. Our work at InZone – a center for higher education in refugee contexts at the University of Geneva that operates programs in Kakuma (Kenya) and Azraq (Jordan) refugee camps - has afforded us the privileged, and sometimes precarious, position of working with refugee communities living in two of the most overcrowded and difficult spaces in the world. As the threat of a devastating Coronavirus outbreak in the camp becomes a distinct possibility, the fears and complaints we hear are now more pertinent and magnified than ever before.
“The hypocrisy of the humanitarian system has reached a peak.” - Kakuma refugee.
It has been almost three weeks since Kakuma has been in lockdown mode. During this time, refugee students who are enrolled in our higher education programs have reached out to us on numerous occasions to ask for more information on the Coronavirus, advice on how to keep themselves safe, and, more sinisterly, to alert us to the fact that the few services that they thought they could rely on like water supplies, soap, and adequate food rations are running low. As humanitarian organizations slowly start awareness-raising actions in the camps, the little bit of Coronavirus information that has already been circulated among the residents has mainly been videos produced by the refugees themselves. In addition, they have already begun to organize themselves and are crowdfunding to buy soap for the most vulnerable in the camp. Exasperated by what he views as desertion by most international humanitarian organizations working in the camp, one refugee student ironically asked us, “are they sleeping.” Another told us that the current situation was, in his opinion, “proving once again that international organizations working in Kakuma are only there for their own interests” and that “the hypocrisy of the humanitarian system has reached a peak” during this time. These examples of testimonies highlight a deep lack of trust between refugees and those who govern their lives.
As is to be expected in times of pandemic, tensions run high. In places like refugee camps, these tensions have the capacity to increase the pressure placed on people whose limits are already at breaking point. Recently, a refugee student sent us video footage and audio testimony of Kenyan police chasing, beating, and arresting refugees in a violent attempt to enforce the ‘lockdown’ in Kakuma. In an understandable effort to protect the refugees from virus transmission from outside the camp, most international organizations who normally administer services in the camp have left the refugees on their own. As a result, there is little or no presence in the camp other than the Kenyan national police, who have been tasked with enforcing a nationwide curfew since March 27th. This curfew came in conjunction with a declaration from the Kenyan Refugee Affairs Secretariat and UNHCR, reminding refugees and asylum seekers that Kakuma operates under an encampment policy and that anyone who dares leave the camp without a movement pass (the issuance of movement passes has been suspended since March 16th, 2020), risks immediate arrest.
As violent as the current situation seems, it is not that out of the ordinary in the Kakuma refugee camp. A curfew has been in place for the last few years. In addition, movement to, from, and sometimes within the camp is largely prohibited and controlled by the Kenyan State and humanitarian organizations. Those restrictions, which were validated by the Kenyan High Court, have been considered violations of the freedom of movement to which refugees are entitled under international law. In the current situation of crisis, where restrictions to human rights are valid under certain circumstances, there is a risk that States and other actors take advantage of this pandemic to validate the usual breaches to human rights already taking place in the camp, undermining their responsibilities under international law. There is also a risk that this health crisis reinforces the security approach to forced migration that has been developed over the last decade. Long used to draconian restrictions placed on their lives, refugees in the camp have learned how to navigate between the “compassion” of humanitarians working with them during the day and the violence of the police officers after 6 pm when these humanitarians leave the camp to go back to their own compound. Intimidation, police violence, and bribes are de-rigueur in Kakuma, where humanitarian operations could not be possible without the not-so-invisible presence of the police and paramilitaries whose de facto role is to keep the residents confined and governable. Since the coronavirus crisis, this “secret solidarity” has taken a new turn, pushing humanitarians to confine themselves even more in their compounds and letting the camps at the mercy of the police.
The humanitarian workers' lockdown has also resulted in Kenyan aid workers and refugee incentive workers being left to do most of the jobs in the camp during the day. This presents a further issue for the humanitarian system, with a question of power relationships among local and international aid workers in the domain of forced migration. When the going gets tough, who is on the front line, who is really needed, and who is not? On the surface, a lot of noise has been made about efforts to ensure the safety of the refugees during this pandemic time. Understanding the reality and hearing the fears and complaints of refugee students, we feel that there is something of a Potemkin village of humanitarian aid in place at the moment, showing goodwill and compassion, when refugees were up until now left alone without adequate information and little access to the most basic goods that they need to keep themselves safe. For the moment, the Coronavirus outbreak has had the negative effect of reinforcing human rights abuses and the detrimental dynamics at play in Kakuma refugee camp. Nevertheless, there is still time to reverse the trend and use this exceptional situation to finally work on the daunting aspects of the humanitarian system. This will require humanitarians to trust refugees, support their initiatives, resist police violence and break the social distinction between refugees and humanitarians in a crisis that does not recognize barriers.
 BRANKAMP, ‘Occupied Enclave’: Policing and the underbelly of humanitarian governance in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, Political Geography, vol. 71, 2019, pp. 67-77.  GRAYSON, Le camp de réfugiés de Kakuma, lieu de méfiance et de défiance, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, vol. 37, 2016, pp. 341-357. NEWHOUSE, More than mere survival: violence, humanitarian governance, and practical material politics in a Kenyan refugee camp, Environment and Planning A, vol. 47, 2015, pp. 2292-2307.
Dr. Paul O'Keeffe leads InZone’s teaching and learning pedagogy. His research focuses on inclusive education and enhancing access to higher education in refugee contexts.
Dr. Djemila Carron is a senior lecturer and researcher at InZone. Her work focuses on human rights and humanitarian law. She teaches human rights in the Kakuma refugee camp.
Off the Radar Screen: COVID-19 and Inequalities
By Daniel Warner
Among the many tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic have been startling revelations of glaring inequalities and profound systemic problems with the international relief agencies. In their courageous opinion piece for The Geneva Observer, Djemila Carron and Paul O'Keeffe glaringly point out the deficiencies of the humanitarian system for refugees. The crisis, in Kakuma and elsewhere, has pulled the rug under which those problems have been swept for too long. The authors also talk about the "overcrowded and difficult spaces" in certain refugee camps. The lockdown imposed on us may force us to consider the question from a different perspective.
Carron and O'Keeffe pointedly rebuke humanitarian international organizations in their description of the lack of trust between the refugees and the organizations in the Kenyan camps. They cite one refugee who told them that "the hypocrisy of the humanitarian system has reached a peak” during the pandemic as the workers seem more concerned with their own interests than those of the refugees. According to Carron and O'Keeffe, those already in strict confinement in the camps are forced to deal with indifferent humanitarians and the violent police who brutally enforce the national lockdown.
Also, in Africa, a New York Times article reveals that "South Sudan, a nation of 11 million, has more vice presidents (five) than ventilators (four) … In all, fewer than 2,000 working ventilators have to serve hundreds of millions of people in public hospitals across 41 African countries …Ten countries in Africa have none at all." Further evidence of inequality has been documented in the United States, where there is a disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color. The Guardian reports that "in a survey conducted across 14 US states, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recently found that 33% of people who had been hospitalized with Covid-19 were African American, yet they represented only around 13% of the population of those states. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, of 26 states reporting racial data, African Americans account for 34% of Covid-related deaths."
So while the Western media focuses on their own vulnerable—mostly those over 65 with some pre-existing health condition—vulnerable groups around the world as well as people of color in the United States, have been off the radar screen.
Why is this so? What can be done about this lack of attention? During times of crisis, people tend to look toward their own safety. And just as individuals look inward, countries also look out for themselves. It is not surprising that nationalism is on the rise and multilateralism attacked. Donald Trump is closing the borders to immigration just as George Bush tried to close down the United States after 9/11. Multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations are attacked. Each person for himself; each city, state or canton for itself; each country for its citizens. This pandemic has brought out simple survival instincts. Social distancing is more than just a strategy to limit the spread of the virus. It is a physical representation of individuals turning away from others. Yes, there have been acts of generosity. People are helping to deliver food to the elderly. Front-line health workers are putting their own safety on the line. We applaud on our balconies to support their efforts. But these are the exceptions. We are all worried about our safety and that of those closest to us.
Beyond physical safety, many in the West are worried about the basics of food and jobs. The long lines of people waiting for handouts reflect how tenuous survival has become. Those who thought they had enough for shelter and nutrition are facing the most basics for surviving. The fact that many in the food lines in the United States are people with new cars shows how the pandemic has brought on radical change and how economically vulnerable people are. What about the Other? In the midst of organizing for personal survival, can we think about the Other? The statistics about people of color in the United States, as well as the situation in refugee camps and in Africa, are the culmination of the failures in public health systems throughout the world. Western countries were ill-prepared for this pandemic. And if they were ill-prepared, those less fortunate were even less prepared.
So as the West tries to catch up to take care of the needs of the majority of its citizens, can we expect the rich and powerful to look out for the vulnerable within their borders and outside? Organizations like the WHO and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have worked to ensure a basic level of health for all throughout the world. Vaccination programs have been implemented throughout the globe just as development programs have tried to reduce absolute poverty. And there has been some progress.
But the pandemic poses threats to these advances. Countries are injecting huge sums of money to try to salvage their own economies. Tens of millions are unemployed. Industries will shut down. It is predicted that the economic consequences of the pandemic will be worse than the Great Depression of 1929. Given those priorities, can we expect considerations for the most vulnerable within borders and beyond? Are there duties beyond borders, in Stanley Hoffman's terms? Is it too much to ask people to be anxious about their own welfare and at the same time be empathetic with the plight of others? When Emmanuel Levinas wrote that we are all part of the Other, was he sensitive to a situation when our own survival is in question? (Actually, the Israeli philosopher was not even sensitive to the Arabs living in Israel.) There will always be inequalities. The Marxist/Leninist ideal of general equality has proven a failure. The growing inequality within Western countries and around the world (the 1% owns as much wealth as a significant part of the population) has been well documented. The question is whether the pandemic will accentuate the inequalities or introduce a new normal with greater awareness of the vulnerable. Faced with all our vulnerability during the pandemic, will we be able to reach out to others as we would hope they would reach out to us? While the instinct for survival and self-preservation is natural to all animals, can humans show a higher level of consciousness in an interdependent world?
After having experienced a few weeks of what is certainly a difficult but bearable form of isolation in comparison, might we think again and differently before locking up people in detention centers, in shelters, or in camps? Reports from refugee camps in Africa and statistics about deaths of people of color should force us to rethink our fragile, privileged situations. While we stay at home, can we empathize with those who are more vulnerable and have no homes? And if we can, will concrete steps to reach out to them be part of the new normal? Who knows? After having experienced a few weeks of what is certainly a difficult but bearable form of isolation in comparison, might we think again and differently before locking up people in detention centers, shelters, or in camps?
A frequent contributor to The G|O, Dr. Daniel Warner is a foreign policy expert and a former deputy director of The Graduate Institute in Geneva.