20/06/2013 – The astonishing sight of school children huddled around street lights on school nights has become a familiar sight in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. This is where most school assignments get done. Oblivious to the evening rush, the youngsters train their eyes on their ruled notebooks.
‘When we installed the street lamps, it was for the purpose of improving general security, because the camp becomes pitch dark at night,’ says Firas Budeiri of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Dadaab.
But, these street lights have now found another good use, further supported by the DRC installing ‘study benches’ all around the 37 light posts. Here, learning continues after dusk, at least in the sections that are now fitted with street lighting. Closing hours for small businesses have extended too, supporting increased trade.
Kambioos is one of the new settlements in the vast Dadaab refugee complex. This camp got underway in late 2011 as a result of the large influx of refugees fleeing conflict, drought and famine conditions in parts of Somalia.
Until this past January, Kambioos was not an officially recognised camp, despite being home to more than 10 000 refugees. In a bid to decongest other older camps, many families have been relocated here, doubling the population. Now, the camp hosts about 20 000 people within six different sections.
In a community-led process, residents of Kambioos identified a number of project ideas that could potentially improve their protection and the general quality of life in the camp. Out of the long wish list, DRC has implemented three projects so far: the street lighting and solar lanterns for homesteads, provision of first aid training and kits, and facilitating access to information via solar powered and wind-up radios and information boards.
‘Today, the reported cases of theft and sexual and gender-based violence are less than before, and the refugees are better informed of their rights and available services,’ says Firas.
With close to half a million refugees and more than 30 relief agencies, two-way communication between the humanitarian organisations and the refugees can be difficult. Besides, high illiteracy rates among the newly arriving refugees and women are a huge challenge. Newly arriving refugees need to know where to find assistance and other protection services. Information in this case is real power, and can be a question of life or death.
To bridge the information gap DRC gave out 1 000 handheld wind-up radios targeting refugee families who could not afford one. In a joint venture with local radio stations DRC informs and explains to the refugees the activities of the various agencies and more importantly, the services available.
Internews, an agency working to improve access to information both for refugees, host communities and agencies in Dadaab, has also chosen radio. ‘Refugees cannot make informed choices without access to information, and radio is an effective and trusted source,’ says Kate Gunn of Internews.
The radio programmes educate parents on the importance of taking their children to school, explain the concept of ‘child-friendly’ spaces, discuss the need for polio vaccination, and even the rights of women in light of sexual and domestic violence.
The feedback has been overwhelming. ‘Mothers understand the essence of educating their children; women know their rights better; and newly arriving refugees understand the registration process better and can easily find basic services such as healthcare,’ says Kate.
Despite these efforts, refugees in Dadaab are still prone to abuse. The UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) singles out sexually-based violence and child labour as key concerns in Dadaab. Girls are still forced to drop out of school to undertake domestic chores. Banditry is still rife.
UNHCR is working closely with the Kenyan security forces to ensure refugees are protected. This is not always smooth considering security agents have been previously accused of perpetrating the ill-treatment.
‘We are training the newly posted police officers on human rights and international refugee law,’ says Mans Henrik Nyberg, UNHCR, Dadaab. This investment is paying off. ‘About a year ago, the refugees detested law enforcement officers, but now mutual trust is growing. Refugees are confident in the ability of police officers to help them.’
Protection of refugees remains a challenge. The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is working with various agencies to provide basic services including protection. This year, the Commission has given €14 million for the refugee operations in Kenya.
By Martin Karimi
Regional Information Assistant in Nairobi, Kenya