By Joy Cherotich
Kenya shelters about 500,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR-Kenya. 53.7 percent of these refugees and asylum seekers come from Somalia, 24.7 percent from South Sudan, 9 percent from Congo, and 5.8 percent from Ethiopia. The rest are from Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, and Uganda. Based on UNHCR statistics, 44 percent of them reside in Kakuma and 40 percent in Dadaab. Urban refugees make up to 16 percent of the population of refugees and asylum seekers.
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A camp market assessment was done in Dadaab and Kakuma by the World Food Programme in March 2014, which established that most refugees and asylum seekers rely on retail businesses, the sale of groceries and miraa (khat), as well as meat for income. Trade takes place locally in Mandera, Nairobi, and Lokichogio. Most of these products are imported from Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Somalia, giving cross border trade a significant boost. Moreover, Kenyans prefer getting their purchases from camp markets because of their low prices and good quality.
Today, a crisis looms by way of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 1,100 people and killed about 50. The government has imposed movement curfews in areas it considers to be hotspots, including shutting down borders. So far, there have been no reported infections among the refugees. However, they still conduct trade and interact with Kenyans, thereby putting them at a high risk of contracting and spreading the disease. The curfew has slowed down some aspects of business for the refugees, such as the transport of miraa by night. Some countries, like Somalia, have gone ahead to enforce a lockdown, paralysing the cross-border that refugees depend on.
Some factors make refugees susceptible to infection, for instance, their large population and overcrowding at the camps. A report released by The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in September 2019, established that Kenya’s refugee-hosting counties like Turkana and Garissa have challenges that include food insecurity, poor living conditions and limited access to essential social amenities. Physical distancing is difficult to enforce for this group as they share limited camp facilities. Should the virus get inside refugee camps, the situation may get out of control – most refugees do not have access to clean water, soap, and sanitisers.
The recent case in Greece should set a precedent on how Kenya should protect its refugees, in the occurrence of an epidemic. According to Al Jazeera, a forty-seven-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker died despite having been cleared of COVID-19, causing panic among the other refugees and asylum seekers who then protested and set ablaze the Vial Camp in Chios Island, one of Greece’s largest refugee camps. The ministry in charge of migration had to move elderly and ailing asylum seekers out of the camps to protect them from COVID-19.
In my opinion, the government should do more by providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. The camp clinics are understaffed, and the health system is also unreliable. There are no Intensive Care Units or Personal Protective Equipment required to contain an outbreak of the virus, which limits effective response. The refugees and asylum seekers are more vulnerable, not only to exposure to COVID-19 but also to other infectious diseases.
Besides recruiting and training more health workers to be deployed as a matter of urgency, the government ought to set up more quarantine facilities at the camps. It should also plan to decongest them to mitigate the risk of infection. This vulnerable group should also be supported through an adequate supply of food, water, and other sanitation facilities. (