Aid worker diary: South Sudanese flock to Kakuma refugee camp

31 Jan 2014

Jan 2014, Kakuma, Kenya: A barefooted little boy who has just arrived at Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp from South Sudan, runs with a suitcase on his head, trying to keep up with registration procedures. Credit: OCHA/Gabriella Waaijman
An OCHA aid worker visits Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp where hundreds of South Sudanese are arriving every day, most of them children who have made the journey alone.

Gabriella Waaijman is the Head of OCHA’s Eastern Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya. She travelled last week to the Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya. Hundreds of South Sudanese are arriving there every day, most of them children who have made the journey alone.

I don’t even know her name. She told me that she came from Bor in South Sudan’s Jonglei State and fled after her husband was killed in the clashes around the town. Five months pregnant, this brave woman picked up the few belongings she could carry and escaped just in time with her three children. Friends and family who came afterwards told her that many of those who had decided to stay were killed.

Kakuma refugee camp is located in Turkana, north-western Kenya. It houses 130,000 refugees from several different countries. Turkana is one of the poorest regions of Kenya. This year again, the early warning signs of an impending food crisis in the county are becoming increasingly urgent.

The new arrivals are settled on a newly acquired extension to the camp called Kakuma IV, able to accommodate about 25,000 people. The extension was initially meant to decongest the overcrowded camp, but with the new influx from South Sudan of approximately 500 people a day, it will soon be full. Over the last few weeks some 10,500 people arrived. If it continues like this, Kakuma IV will be full in the coming month.

4 out of 5 arrivals are children

The extension is marked by rows and rows of brand new tents. It is still a bare place, with very little to break the dust winds or provide shelter from the relentless sun. Aid agencies have been in overdrive to put the basics in place for the stream of new arrivals: tents, water and sanitation support, food distributions and medical care. It is a race against time, as new people keep arriving every day.

Many of the newcomers are actually Kakuma old timers. Aid workers told me that many of them knew the camp procedures by heart, having left Kakuma less than two years ago following South Sudan’s independence.

A frightening number of the new arrivals are children – around 80 per cent. In humanitarian industry jargon, they are called “unaccompanied minors”, a status which is meant to entitle them to additional support – a little bit of extra food or protection by pairing them with adults, for example.

But rights are hard to guarantee. There is simply not enough support available. Food rations have only recently been restored after a break in the logistics chain forced aid agencies in Kakuma and wider northern Kenya to cut rations. Food is now secured until March, I am told, but this does not include assistance for newcomers.

“I think about my own son”

A barefooted little boy runs past me with a suitcase on his head, desperately trying to keep up with the registration procedures. It is a gut-wrenching sight. I think about my own son of approximately the same age and wonder if he would have ever survived such a harsh journey on his own.

Sometimes I wonder if we actually use statistics and technical terms to protect ourselves; to place an invisible shield between “us” and “them”; to try to emotionally protect ourselves from the horror that these kids are facing. But in the end we are talking about a child – a desperately lonely and frightened child who deserves so much more than the meagre support he is entitled to as an “unaccompanied minor”.

The shield is cracking, as every statistic represents a lifetime of emotional trauma.

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