• Inequality and daily living conditions in refugee camps are amplifying the threat posed by COVID-19.
  • We spoke to two refugees from Kakuma, a camp of 192,000 people in northwestern Kenya.

Mohammed Hassan Mohamud has neither a passport nor an official date of birth. He is a Somali refugee from Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya, having spent much of his life there.

In January, he left to find work in Eastleigh, a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi, known locally as 'little Mogadishu'. The building he lives in is crowded, with families of up to six people or more occupying a single room. This is his home as he provides for his family back in Kakuma, 700km away.

Work was hard to come by, particularly as a refugee. Then, the coronavirus crisis hit.

“People don't want to hire anyone. People don't want to spend. Everybody is afraid of the future,” he says.

“The government policy is for refugees to be in refugee camps. So me being in Nairobi looking for a job, means it's so risky for me and for my family because we're not wanted, we are not welcome.”

Mohammed is a member of the Kakuma Global Shapers hub, and was a co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Annual Meeting. He lived in Kakuma for 20 years.

Brutal inequalities

The virus has revealed brutal social and economic inequalities, with callous indifference to suffering. Refugees and vulnerable groups have been hit by food insecurity, inability to pay rent, poor and overcrowded living conditions, loss of income, harassment from police, and limited access to hygiene. In Eastleigh, schools and madrasas are closed, which means children stay home. Fears are growing about the spread of coronavirus in areas where few can afford soap, water is rare and social distancing impossible.

The numbers of displaced people around the world, as of June last year
The numbers of displaced people around the world, as of June last year
Image: UNHCR

“I know I have lots of friends who are all hiding underground because everything is just - it's very fragile. The whole system is fragile now,” Mohammed says.

He describes a mother who lives in his neighbourhood and built up an informal business selling tea and Mandazi doughnuts in the evenings. But then a 7pm curfew was brought in and the police shut it down.

“It took her almost one year [to build up this business]. But now her whole establishment is destroyed. Now she's at home saying: ‘How can I pay the rent for myself? What am I going to do? I have all of these children.’ She cannot ask people for help because she's afraid that she's a refugee.”

He added that basic health, sanitary precautions and social distancing are impossible in his community. In his building, for example, families share a single bathroom, they get fresh water once a week, and many have no means to follow good hygiene practices.

“The virus, it's showing us the difference between the people who have and the people who don't have.

“We’re told to wash your hands for 20 seconds. People don't have a sink. They don't have water to wash their hands. People don't even have soap and no one can buy it. They can't afford it. This virus, it's highlighting the difference between people.”

With the closure of schools, madrasas, churches and mosques, he says that many in his community have lost their traditional support networks. He and other community organizers are responding overtime to tackle the challenge. They are providing emotional support to vulnerable families, organizing a virtual food-drive so that these families may have something to eat, finding ways to make hand sanitizers and soap available to those who cannot buy them and pleading with landlords to reduce rents.

“If there's one thing that people can take from this is please reach out to the vulnerable people in every community, not only in Kenya, and not only in Nairobi, I think they need assistance. And now more than ever. Let's focus on that, please.”

Curtailing futures in Kakuma

Inside Kakuma, meanwhile, the virus is all anyone is talking about, says Zakaria Mohammed Odowa. A Somali refugee, he has lived in the camp for the past 10 years and is the founder and curator of Kakuma’s Global Shapers hub.

Living in a camp with 192,000 other people poses its own set of challenges when it comes to responding to the threat posed by COVID-19, he explains.

“Social distancing will be an issue in Kakuma,” said Zakaria. “The blocks and houses are very adjacent to one another. And early every morning all refugees go and fetch water, and every 50 or 100 houses share the same water tub. People are scared; what if the virus comes into Kakuma and we are all sharing the same water?”

The food distribution systems within the camp are also a concern. “The refugees’ main concern about the food distribution centres is overcrowding,” Zakaria says. “Around 192,000 people have to collect their food in a limited time. How will social distancing be possible? And what about someone who has already developed [COVID-19] symptoms? That person will simply be coming in.”

The World Food Program (WFP), which organizes food distribution within the camp, has set out new guidelines in response to the COVID-19 threat, such as taking people’s temperatures as they enter the food distribution centres and ensuring social distancing and hand-washing practices are observed by those waiting to collect their food. But Zakaria says this information has so far only been shared with community leaders. “There is no mass awareness of these procedures,” he says. “They must create awareness. Maybe [that will happen] in the next few days.”

Beyond day-to-day concerns, the pandemic also threatens the futures of Kakuma’s younger residents. Zakaria is a distance-learning student at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and is also taking an online course in human resource management with Cambridge International College - but measures introduced by the Kenyan government have put the brakes on his education.

“The [camp’s] learning centre has been shut down,” he says. “It is difficult for me to even access the learning centre and submit my assignments on time.

“And similarly it has fractured the lives of my family; my siblings and other refugee children can’t go to school because of the shutdown of learning institutions, both primary and secondary.”

Education, he says, is one the most important aspects of life in Kakuma. Around 85% of student-age refugees have access to primary and secondary education, Zakaria says - and now “their learning has been disrupted - they are just staying at home”.

“Most refugees here value education as a way out of poverty,” he adds. “We believe we can change our lives to a brighter future through education. If coronavirus has locked down our learning systems in Kakuma, it is a great threat to the future of refugee children.”

For now, though, the best approach to tackling this crisis, according to Mohammed, is if we all, as one global community, work together and demonstrate solidarity.

“If there's one thing that people can take from this is please reach out to the vulnerable people in every community, not only in Kenya, and not only in Nairobi, I think they need assistance,” he says. “And now more than ever. Let's focus on that, please.”