Potemkin Villages and Refugees Camps during the Coronavirus Crisis

“The hypocrisy of the humanitarian system has reached a peak.”

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.[1] 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.”

It has been almost three weeks now 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.[2]

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[3]. 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.

[1] BRANKAMP, ‘Occupied Enclave’: Policing and the underbelly of humanitarian governance in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, Political Geography, vol. 71, 2019, pp. 67-77. [2] GRAYSON, Le camp de réfugiés de Kakuma, lieu de méfiance et de défiance, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, vol. 37, 2016, pp. 341-357.[3] 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.