Trying to get my head around the refugee situation in northern Kenya…

Refugees from South Sudan stuck at the border

Last week, I travelled with two colleagues to Turkana County in Northern Kenya. I have been to this region before but only for a day trip. This time we went for 3 days with the explicit objective of spending time listening to what newly arrived asylum seekers, long-term refugees and local Turkana communities have to say. Although the refugee situation in Kenya has been an important part of my job since arriving in Kenya, this was a chance to learn more about the complex set of issues from people themselves.

With the UN General Assembly and Leaders’ Summit this week, in hot pursuit of the World Humanitarian Summit, the web is awash with case studies and stories – written by far more articulate and informed writers – so it is hard to know how to summarize our 3 days and the stories we heard without sounding painfully trite.

So, I have attempted to let the pictures and anecdotes I heard from people do the talking, providing a glimpse of what the ‘humanitarian system’ feels like in practice for people.


Asylum seekers from South Sudan first arrive in Kenya through the border at Nadapal, surely one of the remotest border points.

This is the point of arrival for the majority of refugees on their way to Kakuma, coming from all over South Sudan, from the fighting around Juba and from hunger and starvation in the Eastern Equatorial region.

Having crossed the border, asylum seekers stay at a transit centre before being taken to Kakuma itself.

The transit centre in Nadapal

The transit centre — designed for people to stay for 2–3 days to arrange paperwork and have mandatory Yellow Fever vaccinations — is over-crowded; over 600 people people have been waiting for vaccination for 2 weeks in a centre with space for 3oo. Government officials – who insist that vaccines are administered at the border – tell us this is the UN’s responsibility to fix. We were told that the UN has been following up with the Government for over 2 weeks. People wait.

These women tell me they have fled fighting in Juba. Like most women I talk to, their husbands are still in South Sudan ‘in the military’ and they don’t have any means of communicating with them. They chose to come here as they had heard the camps in Uganda were full and appear to be relieved to be ‘with the UN’ (it is almost as though being in Kenya is irrelevant to them – it is the UN they have come for). As with so many people I met, they have little information on what happens next and the process. When I explain that, once they are vaccinated, they will be taken to a camp with water, health services and educations, they cheer.

As numbers rise in the transit centre while camp staff wait for more Yellow Fever vaccines, so too does the pressure on the camp. More tents are put up.

Access to water is a problem at the Nadapal border as the borehole capacity — designed for 300 people — is stretched to the max. The UN transport it by truck every couple of days from Kakuma (about 150 Km away). This requires a police escort due to fears of banditry on the road.

Water delivery

The transit camp has limited facilities so people just wait about until the vaccines arrive (this week we are told). Ironically, if you arrive on a tourist or business visa without a Yellow Fever certificate you are allowed to pass straight through since the Ministry of Health has run out of vaccines.

Once the vaccines arrive, the journey from Nadapal to Lokichoggio and onto Kakuma goes through some wild and inhospitable terrain.


On arrival in Kakuma people stay in the Reception Centre while their asylum claim is processed, they have health checks and are registered with UNHCR and the Government of Kenya.

Apparently, both UNHCR and the Government of Kenya have their own registration process and databases and although there is some sharing of data, it is quite limited. New arrivals receive ration cards and Sim cards for Bamba Chakula (an innovative system that gives people cash on a phone card so they can choose food items from accredited traders)

Benjamin (11) and Alphonse (12) (from Ituri and Beni in North Kivu, DRC) in the process of arranging the paperwork for their mothers.

Once they are registered by the Government of Kenya, newly arrived refugees are taken to their accommodation.

Kakuma 1, 2, 3, and 4 are fascinating places, more like a series of desert slums than what I’d imagined, surprising in their scale and diversity. And everyone we meet has a story that makes you question your own view of the world. This man tells us how he fled from religious persecution in Tanzania and how he tried to return but was threatened again and forced to leave. He says he won’t try to take his family home again; they will stay here.

Kakuma is full of activity, some organised by the aid agencies and some informal. We met a cooperative of men and women who are making bread, using Sorghum and Maize that has been milled by a community run organisation outside the camp, that they sell back to the UN for a school feeding programme. It looks interesting but the cynic in me wonders whether the various organisations involved are creating dependency rather than really helping the various groups develop a sustainable business model. A thought that came to me throughout.

Kakuma has – like any other settlement in Kenya – vibrant markets inside the camp where host communities and refugees interact. Many people are certainly poor but there is clearly money in the system. During the day, we hear stories of people selling their rations and even a property market as people sell ‘plots’ close to the road or market.

A bustling market in Kakuma camp

There are schools and health centres, all bearing the name of the NGO, Donor, Individual UN agency or the occasional celebrity from when they visited.

Formally, refugees are not allowed to work in Kenya, forcing them to rely on food distribution or informal trading. There are exceptions in the camp, where aid agencies can employ refugees to help run services. We met 2 refugees (from Congo & Somalia) who work in the newly completed and impressive looking operating theatre in the General Hospital in Kakuma. They tell us about how good it is to work and how they still collect monthly food rations like anyone else.

The quality of services for refugees is a big issue for local Turkana communities, who complain that refugees get better quality services than they do. And health indicators in the camp tend to back this up. In the maternity ward, we heard how the maternal mortality rates are far lower in the camp that in the neighbouring communities (nearly half), with 98% of pregnant women giving birth in a health centre. That isn't to say that there aren’t serious health challenges; we were told that at the height of the crisis in South Sudan earlier this year 40% of newly arrived children under 5 were malnourished.

I’d heard before about how refugees want to work but can’t and how local communities want basic services but don’t get them. This is clearly true, but there were more signs of interaction between the two groups than I had anticipated. Here local Turkana women bring firewood to sell to the refugee population.


In recent months, work has started on a new approach to refugees in Turkana County.

Kakuma camp is full, with an estimated 160,000 people in the 4 camps. With new arrivals every day and the prospect of up to 15,000 people being moved from Dadaab camp, the need for a new space is urgent.

The local community, supported by the County Government, have set aside 15,000 hectares of land for a new integrated settlement, which is being designed and built more like a town than a camp. The grand idea is that refugees and local communities will be able to interact more easily, access services together, grow food in land set aside for agriculture and trade more formally.

The masterplan for Kalobeyei

There are already 5000 people living at Kalobeyei as all new arrivals are being sent here. Houses currently have plastic sheeting as walls (so it still looks like a refugee camp) but these will all be replaced with bricks.

A prototype house, made from Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks (ISSB)

And there are grand plans for how each small neighbourhood will look (although I struggle to imagine the green lawn…)

The settlement will have a formal market place where traders from the local and refugee communities can sell to the inhabitants. There are currently 4 ‘accredited traders’ representing both communities and this will rise considerably. We met two men from South Sudan and local Turkana women who are selling basic food commodities to refugees, all of whom are delighted by the opportunity to trade in the settlement.

Some reflections…

After 3 days in the area, I feel better informed. However, it is still hugely complex and often confusing. But here are a few reflections we discussed as we headed back to Nairobi:

  • There is a prime example of a complex system in action. There are so many actors, hugely complex politics, differing incentives, one of the most challenging operating environments and very different types of refugee.
  • Refugee services often feel as though they are arranged around the delivery (or funding) organisation and not the people themselves and their needs. Is it time for some user centred design?
  • I was struck by how uninformed refugees appeared to be about what was happening around them and the lack of coherent communications. And there were loads of rumours too (i.e. of conflicts within parts of the camp, worries about a potential change in government position etc).
  • As so often, people appear to be treated by the system as ‘beneficiaries’ and many become dependent on it. There was little sense of the ability of people to hold the system to account.
  • There appeared to be an entire industry in co-ordination. Almost every agency person we talked seemed to suggest that the solution to any given problem resources required a meeting.
  • I wondered how the role the humanitarian system plays excuses government providers from thinking through policies that would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of services. For instance, while the Government insists on Yellow Fever vaccinations being given at the border, it bears none of the risks (i.e. trucking water to the border, coping with health emergencies, emergency vaccine procurement, reporting on the health statistics).
  • There is hope for a different approach through the Kalobeyei settlement. I wondered whether we are focusing too much on the ‘hardware’ of building the settlement (water, food, houses, schools) treating it as a humanitarian project. If it is to succeed it needs some deep governance expertise to help get the ‘software’ right (government finance and engagement, community empowerment and accountability etc). Without this, will it just be a nicer version of any other Kenyan camp?
  • Above all, everyone we met is working extremely hard in a world of constant crisis and firefighting, for which we all owe our sincere thanks. It is not an easy job. I wondered when there is the time to stop and think.
Kalobeyei – a new integrated settlement or business as usual?