Refugee camps teeming with a new generation of youth who are stateless

Friday April 1 2011

File | NATION The faces of despair. Most of these refugee children in Kakuma cannot lay claim to any particular country.

File | NATION The faces of despair. Most of these refugee children in Kakuma cannot lay claim to any particular country. 


Darkness came at high noon for thousands of boys and girls born of refugees in camps in northern Kenya. Now in the prime of their youth, they hardly know where they belong. They suffer an identity crisis.

Asked whether he is Kenyan or Somali, Abdi Aziz Mohamed stares into space, unable to hazard a guess. “I don’t know. When people are being recruited (along nationalities) you find yourself empty, you have nowhere to go or associate with”.

Up and down the sweltering dried up river beds, running after polythene balls, these youths cannot perform their civic duty because they can hardly lay claim to a particular country.

Ideally, Mohamed — and the rest of the 200,000-odd children born of refugee parents since the early 1990s when Somalis and Sudanese runaways flooded Kenya — should be part of his motherland’s destiny, or Kenya’s future.

Yet this is not the case.

Mohamed was born at Utange, a refugee camp that has since been demolished at Kenya’s coast, of Somali parents forced out of their country by the factional wars that followed the ouster of then strongman Siad Barre exactly 20 years ago. He now lives at Kakuma, a sprawling tin camp in Turkana, which holds 82,000 mostly Sudanese and Somali runaways.

The 15 square kilometre camp is arguably the world’s most cosmopolitan refugee base, providing a home to Sudanese, Somalis, Ugandans, Congolese, Ethiopians and Burundians. It hosts thousands of youths — including Mohamed’s deskmate Anisa Mohamed (18).

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 10,000 children are born in Kenyan refugee camps every year. Thus 200,000 have been born since 1991. A number have been relocated to third countries but the majority remain in Kenya, all without the requisite identity of their states.

Kenya hosts about 360,000 refugees from 24 countries, including faraway places like Sri Lanka, Gaza Strip, Iraq, Côte d’Ivoire and even Egypt. The UNHCR has coordinated their welfare and survival.

Food rations apart, they enjoy education, medical care, security and even the hope that peace will return to their countries, according to the agency spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera.

Mohamed’s fears cannot be unlikely. He turns 18 this year — an age so symbolic in life, an age where one assumes voting rights and, in many countries, a time in life when one is declared “adult”. But in the sweltering heat of Kakuma, glued to a bench under a shed in a school where every student boasts of being a foreigner yet terrified they have never been to their countries, Mohamed says: “I don’t know whether I have a country. Kenya refused me citizenship papers despite being born here”.

He is “stateless”, say scholars and human rights experts. Indeed, in official jargon, this Form Four student of Kakuma Secondary School is “(one) who is not considered as a national by any state through its legislation or constitution”, based on definition by the Refugee Consortium of Kenya.

Simply, he cannot lay claim to neither Somalia, his motherland, nor Kenya, his birthplace. He has known only one government — the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

And for refugees in Turkana County, their “country” is Kakuma and for those in Garissa County, it is Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp with about 390,000 people.

In an attempt to explain statelessness, legal experts and scholars place the situation into categories: De jure and de facto statelessness. The first case draws persons who have no recognised state and this could include refugee children born away from home whose parents lack identification of their homeland.

The second, de facto statelessness, describes those who may have a claim to their homeland but cannot assert their nationality because of various reasons, which could include internal conflicts.

Somehow, defining statelessness is a bit difficult — even for legal experts. They tend to link it to “citizenship”. Yet although the two expressions are very close, they are hardly the same thing. Statelessness is used to explain “belonging”. A citizen is “a native or naturalised member of a state or other political community”.

Yet both are about “membership and participation; rights; responsibilities; and equality of status, respect and recognition,” says Ruth Lister in an article Why Citizenship: Where, When and How Children?

Implicitly, without citizenship one cannot prove their nationality. States operate in terms of numbers, says Charles Dulo Nyaoro, coordinator, Centre for Refugee Studies, Moi University. “States operate as political organisations. So, if you don’t have an identity of a state you are literally lost; you have no state.”

According to Kenyan authorities, most refugees lack IDs or passports — or did not carry them along. Thus, their offspring lack identification papers too. Statelessness is a right denied. One can hardly get a job, economic prospects, and even claim to belong somewhere. It is even difficult to relocate to a third country, says Dr Dulo, author of Victims of Armed Conflict and Persecution in South Africa.

In another report, Who Am I? Identity and citizenship in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, researchers Linda Bartolomei, Eileen Pittaway and Emma Elizabeth Pittaway, all of the University of South Wales, examine the issue of citizenship of refugees, women in particular, and pass judgment that the runaways have been oppressed and discriminated against (in employment and property ownership) because of the identity crisis.

Even at the global level, debate over statelessness has gained momentum. The world has about 14.4 million stateless people. Here, an estimated 100,000 Kenyans are stateless, according to a joint study by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and the UNHCR published last July.

These are adult Kenyans without identity documents — because they have been discriminated against in the issuance of the documents.

The subsequent report, Out of the Shadows towards Ensuring the Rights of Stateless Persons and Persons at Risk of Statelessness in Kenya, observes: “Persons at risk of statelessness face vast challenges accessing the labour market in Kenya owing to the lack of (identity cards) that is a perquisite for formal employment.” Since such people cannot show their IDs, it is “very difficult for them to get formal work”.

Thus, it is hardly difficult to understand why Mohamed’s dilemma strikes at the heart of civil rights groups, even scholars. “I have fears; I feel I have no state to lay claim to. Without identity papers one can hardly get a job,” says Mohamed’s desk-mate, Anisa, petite, shy and not ready to be photographed.

About 300 metres away, at the fringe of Kakuma camp, 20-year-old Alek Kuir could, ideally, claim citizenship of three countries — born in Ethiopia of Sudanese parents, and lives in Kenya. But her papers denote her “Alien”.

It is the same with Ethiopians, Ugandans and Burundians forced to flee their homelands by governments they perceive to be intolerant. Most of the 6,300 Ethiopian refugees in Kakuma have no identity papers and risk persecution if they return, they claim. So are the 200 Burundians who arrived a month ago.

Implicitly, it will be almost impossible for the same governments to embrace the sons and daughters of the political fugitives.

Another population likely to cause problems are minors who came to Kenya without parents. “Their percentage is unknown. You cannot place them, you cannot tell where they came from.”

All told, hardly is there any indication the issue of statelessness will be dealt with soon. For the Sudanese, not many are in a hurry to go home even after a referendum that created the new nation of South Sudan.

“Do I want to live here or go to Sudan and die? We know more about Kenya than Sudan,” says Garang Manyok. His friend, Alek Kuir, 20, says: “Here is good, we get everything for free.”

In the case of Somalia, clan-based violence has reduced the country to a free-for-all battlefield, imperilling any form of administration as well as governance. Thus, Somali refugees can hardly acquire citizenship in this madness — even as a lasting solution appears elusive.

As for Kenya, laws prohibit citizenship for refugees. The country’s legal and administrative framework is not adequate to deal with the issue of stateless persons, says the Refugee Consortium of Kenya.

Kenya’s position, it would appear, is that a refugee is automatically linked to the source country, thus Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, DR Congo or Burundi. Yet what hasn’t come to the fore is that most of the older refugees in camps do not have identity papers themselves. Their children are at a more disadvantaged position. Their papers note them as “aliens” — clearly a derogatory term.

Take the case of Abdul Ali, 19, who was born in Kakuma to Ethiopian parents with no IDs. He dreams of being a journalist, but he is afraid that a hurdle lurks somewhere. He is not Kenya, neither is he Ethiopian. “Ethiopia can deny me but I cannot deny I am Ethiopian. I know they will deny me.”

“We don’t have a policy for integration,” says Charles Nyaoro Dulo, a lecturer at the Moi University Centre for Refugee Studies, which was created to study “forced migration and to create an environment in which people understand the root causes of refugee flows and which encourages them to be part of seeking solutions,” according to a brochure about it.

“Even for the refugee schoolchildren, they are in limbo despite writing Kenyan examinations.”

In one of his writings, lawyer Ahmed Issack Hassan, Interim Independent Electoral Commission chairperson, observed: “In spite of hosting large numbers of refugees over a long period of time, the Kenyan Government has not developed clear guidelines and policies on how to deal with refugees in Kenya. In general, the situation is vague, haphazard, ad hoc and unplanned. The only agency whose role appears clear and consistent is the UNHCR, which suffers the agony of dealing with the red tape presented by multiple government organs.”

Interesting though, even if the law was reviewed in favour of refugees, Kenya would still find it difficult to grant citizenship because it has no inventory of the refugees in the country. Elsewhere, including South Africa, refugees are registered by the administration. Kenya has left this role to the UNHCR.

Although the new Constitution provides a better framework within which the rights of stateless persons or those at risk of statelessness may be better protected, it however has discriminatory provisions that exist in regard to acquisition of citizenship. Indeed, for the first time, the Constitution provides for dual citizenship yet both parents have to have documents proving their nationalities. Most of the refugees don’t.

“Neither the 1963 nor the 2010 constitutions of Kenya provide for a right to asylum; local integration has not been regarded as necessary or even desirable by the government and assistance to refugees is managed by UNHCR”, says Bronwen Manby in Citizenship Law in Africa: A Comparative Study.

He adds: “A Refugee Act adopted in 2006 largely brought Kenyan law into line with international standards of refugee protection, but the Act does not give refugees the right to work, nor does it contain any explicit right to naturalise as a Kenyan citizen. In practice, Kenya excludes refugees from the naturalisation provisions of its general laws; though a public opinion survey conducted in 2008, in response to discussions about reform to the law, showed that almost half of Kenyans felt that children of refugees born in the country should be given citizenship.”

South Africa is a good example. A refugee can get identity papers, such as a passport. Last year, the country reviewed its Refugees Act of 1998 to make it possible for refugee children turning 18 to apply for citizenship if they showed that they were stateless. Tanzania gives refugees room for naturalisation.

At the UN, there is some disquiet about the increasing number of stateless people. Six months ago, Louise Aubin, the UNHCR assistant representative for protection, asked Kenya to ratify the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Part of this convention says: “A contracting state shall grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless…”

Soon, experts in security matters warn, Kenya will be forced to deal with this large “nation” of people born of refugees.