Kakuma Refugee Camp

The Kakuma refugee camp was established in 1991 and is located 95km from Lokichoggio, a town at the Kenya-Sudan border. It is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and falls under the jurisdiction of the Kenyan government. Kakuma, meaning “nowhere” in Swahili, has been controlled through the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) since the adoption of the Kenya Refugee Act of 2006. The refugee camp is connected with only a highway on the Kenyan northern corridor.[1]

The camp is a town within another town, as the actual city of Kakuma is also home to non-refugees. The camp’s area is defined by a harsh environment in a remote location, coupled with poor infrastructure and low access to essential services, in addition to other underlying causes of poverty. The camp serves refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries due to war or persecution. Originally for Sudanese refugees, the camp has since expanded to serve refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. As of 2013, according to the International Association for Refugees the Kakuma Refugee Camp currently serves over 110,000 men, women and children who have fled wars in neighboring countries. [2]

According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of May 2016, the total population in Kakuma was at 191,865, of which 54,553 were refugees of Somali origin. Another 100,380 were refugees from South Sudan. [3]

Humanitarian Aid and Governance Kakuma Refugee Camp is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR is assisted in its duties by a wide range of organizations, including World Food Program (WFP), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), Film Aid International, and Salesians of Don Bosco in Kenya.

The camp falls under the jurisdiction of the Kenyan Government and the Department of Refugee Affairs. Since the adoption of the Kenya Refugee Act in 2007, a Camp Manager has been appointed to oversee camp affairs and liaison with humanitarian agencies. The Act paves the way for the Kenyan Government to eventually assume full management of Kakuma Refugee Camp.

In May of 2016, the Kenyan government released a statement regarding its intention to close Kakuma, along with a second, larger camp in the face of rising terrorist activity :

“Under the circumstances, the Government of the Republic of Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, has decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end. The Government of Kenya acknowledges that the decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees and therefore the international community must collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action.”

It adds that the government has disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs, which “works with humanitarian organizations looking after the welfare of refugees,” according to The Associated Press. It also is in charge of processing refugee registration, Human Rights Watch says.

The government of Kenya has threatened to shut down the camps in the past, but have relented under pressure from the international community.

Life in Kakuma:

Life in the semi-arid desert environment of Kakuma is challenging. The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

The camp is a “small city” of thatched roof huts, tents, and mud abodes. Living inside the camp is equally prison and exile. Once admitted, refugees do not have freedom to move about the country but are required to obtain Movement Passes from the UNHCR and Kenyan Government. “Essentially, the refugees are confined to the Kakuma camp area; they are not allowed to move freely outside of it, and they may not seek education or employment outside of it” [4]. Inside this small city at the edge of the desert, children age into adulthood and hope fades to resignation. To be quite frank, many refugees are living the lives of hostages.

Due to their legal situation and local environmental conditions, refugees are largely unable to support themselves with income-generating activities. The semi-arid climate of Kakuma is ill-suited to agriculture, while restrictions on employment deter refugee job-seeking. Those who work with NGOs receive a small incentive payment for their work, but incentive staff represent only a fraction of the refugee population. As Arafat Jamal concludes from his evaluation of Kakuma camp, “Anyone confined to a place like Kakuma is rendered automatically dependent on some form of hand-out”. [5]


Works Cited

[1] [2]Fair Observer— http://www.fairobserver.com/article/life-kakuma-refugee-camp

[3] UNHCR Fact Sheet UNHCR Branch Office Nairobi. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/KakumaCampPopulation_20160530.pdf

Jamal, Arafat (2000). Minimum standards and essential needs in a protracted refugee situation: A review of the UNHCR programme in Kakuma, Kenya. UNHCR Evaluation and Policy Unit/2000/05.


[4] Jamal 2000, p. 7-8

[5] Jamal 2000, p. 23