Kenya: Faith in a Protracted Refugee Crises

By: Katherine Marshall

January 27, 2016

News reports tell of desperate refugee journeys, as thousands flee the dangers and hopelessness of wars or hunger in leaky boats and other perilous means. Less in the news is a different face of the worldwide refugee crisis: over ten million people trapped interminably in camps that were designed only with emergency shelter in mind. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) calls it the protracted refugee situation. One of the most intractable is in eastern Africa, where millions live in a seemingly endless limbo.

Refugee camps in Kenya are a vivid example of this often forgotten humanitarian drama. In the arid northern region lies Dadaab, a complex called the world's largest refugee camp. Most have fled Somalia. The Dadaab complex "celebrates" its 25th anniversary this year. A third generation now lives there: grandchildren of refugees who arrived decades ago. This human crisis strains national and international resources. Despite continuing efforts, prospects for resolving the situation are distant.

The plight of refugees is woven through scripture and stories because such tragedies have happened time and time again in human history. Welcoming the stranger and helping those in need are a common call, a thread that links different traditions. But tales of strife also cut across traditions and many are embedded in stories and rituals. Not surprisingly, religious actors and issues are deeply embedded in Kenya's refugee challenge. But sorting out the different faith threads is complex, and translating that into constructive policy action still more so.

The most significant and contentious religious aspects of the Dadaab challenge are political. Refugees are inevitably caught up in the religious dimensions of regional conflicts and tensions. The Al Shabaab extremist group, that fuels conflict across the region, expounds an Islamist ideology. Most refugees in Dadaab are Muslims, and whenever there are incidents of violence in Kenya, suspicions fall on them. After the horrific Garissa University killings in April 2015 senior Kenyan leaders asserted that it was time to close the camps immediately, though they have since tempered their unrealistic call.

The protracted refugee crisis is fueling and even creating religious tensions in the society far beyond Dadaab. Kenya's population is majority Christian but with significant Muslim communities, part of Kenyan society for centuries. Kenya has prided itself on harmonious inter-religious relations, but violence and the presence of the large refugee communities undermines them. Al Shabaab's tactics cast suspicion not only on Somali refugees but also Kenyan Muslims, who include ethnic Somalis. Coming on top of complex, deep ethnic divides, more religious tensions are something Kenya does not need. Wise leaders appreciate the risks and the rifts and various initiatives aim to recognize and address the tensions - among them are BRAVE, a Muslim-led youth initiative that earns its name with the courage that open discourse on the topic demands.

Religious beliefs and practices are an important part of the refugees' daily lives and respecting this reality is a vital part of managing all refugee communities but especially protracted refugee situations. Camps like Dadaab are more than an emergency shelter. Schools are a high priority, symbolizing hope for new generations. Religious festivals are celebrated insofar as possible. Religious leaders among the refugees can play leadership roles, helping to forge communication links with administrators.

Humanitarian organizations from many corners of the world play vital roles as partners of UNHCR; some preceded UNHCR in Kenya. Management of refugee camps demands heavy logistic inputs to make sure food, water, and shelter are available. Many of the partner organizations that keep the Kenyan camps running, for example Jesuit Refugee Services, Islamic Relief, Lutheran World Relief, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the National Council of Churches of Kenya, have strong religious links. Humanitarian conventions are crystal clear in outlawing proselytism and they are widely respected. But experience highlights the many ways in which spiritual insight and compassion enrich the contributions of each group.

Their roles go well beyond meeting the refugees' most urgent needs. Organizations engage on refugee issues beyond UNHCR's official mandate, for example supporting refugees in urban areas whose legal status may be tenuous. The programs range widely, from basic services and care to trauma healing and attention to specific issues like domestic violence. Some bring religious links and experience explicitly to bear. An example is Islamic Relief's pre-schools that integrate Qu'anic and other curricula and teaching methods.

A common feature of protracted refugee situations is tension with local communities. Dadaab is in one of Kenya's poorest, driest regions, beset by drought and disrupted by violence. People see vehicles transporting goods to the camps, bypassing them entirely, and view the refugees as privileged. Resentment is inevitable. The mandate for camp management is to serve refugees, not Kenyan citizens, but sensible planners are keenly aware that integrated responses are vital, for reasons of justice but also to guard against tensions. Some of the faith-inspired organizations are working to bridge the gulfs.

The refugee challenge for Kenya poses a knotty set of challenges, both urgent and longer term. Immediate demands continue but longer term solutions are desperately needed. Refugees are caught in a dependency trap because they can rarely hold jobs in the host country. Few see realistic prospects that the great majority of refugees can return "home" anytime soon, and many have lived their entire lives in Kenya. They need to work towards a normal life in a stable and safe environment, quite possibly Kenya. Yet many Kenyans are unemployed and a youth bulge presages greater employment challenges ahead. Thus strategies for integration, however desirable, are difficult, and the complex links between religion, refugees, and security make them more so.

In the face of this multifaceted challenge, far more could be learned from the rich experience and dedication of the faith-inspired groups who work with the refugees, in and outside the camps. Religion needs to be seen not only as part of the problem but also as offering insights and practical paths towards solutions.

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Kenya: Faith in a Protracted Refugee Crises