By Dulo Nyaoro
As I am writing this piece, 201 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Kenya. Nine have died while 25 have fully recovered. While it is too early to confidently conclude that it is the strict measures that the Kenya government has instituted that has suppressed the spread of Coronavirus, the numbers remain low and manageable. When the first case was reported on 14th March 2020, the government quickly closed all schools, colleges and universities which together host about 15 million students and staff, this almost a third of Kenya’s total population of 47 million. Medical advice such as washing hands, using sanitizers, social distancing and wearing masks became a daily routine amplified by almost every media house and on social media. A week later the government banned public gatherings of more than ten people, imposed a dawn-dusk curfew and moved to limit public travel. The final move was to ban movement into and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties which together have the highest number of cases reported.
In the midst of all these, the Kenya government has acknowledged that the disease will affect groups and individuals differently depending on their vulnerability. The government has mapped out vulnerable groups who will need immediate assistance including the urban poor, the elderly and people with existing chronic conditions.
However, since the daily briefings started on the 16th March 2020, no government official has mentioned or acknowledged the existence of almost one million refugees in Kenya, whether in the refugee camps or in urban centres. Yet the control measures put in place will probably affect them more than others. Several arguments can be made to verify this position.
First, refugee protection and humanitarian assistance in the entire East and Horn of Africa is coordinated largely from Nairobi. Stopping all movement into and out of Nairobi cuts off a crucial link between Nairobi and the refugee camps in Kenya and also activities in Somalia and South Sudan. Personnel in the UN related organizations, civil society groups and NGOs who work with refugees and asylum seekers are unlikely to move and reach their clients. While the movement of essential services such as food items and medical supplies remain open, the coordination becomes a nightmare when the concerned personnel cannot move. When I enquired from a government official, I was informed that food rations in the camp was to be increased as well as medical supplies, however a refugee contact denied receiving increased rations.
Second, refugees in camps in Kenya have to endure restricted movement most of the time. Further restrictions only worsen their situation. Refugees who had travelled to Nairobi cannot go back to the camps and those in the camps who planned to travel to Nairobi cannot. Often such travels are either for medical conditions, processing documents, security reasons or conducting interviews for resettlement. Refugees also travel to access remittances, a critical survival mechanism, in nearby towns. Since refugees have to supplement what they are given by purchasing food items from nearby towns, they are unable to do so now.
Third, urban refugees often live in precarious settings and constitute a large number of the urban poor. Yet some of them do not have proper identification documents that may help them access assistance from the government. Some prefer to remain anonymous. Many of them are in the informal economy living from hand to mouth. Some of the markets are closed, many informal businesses have been shut and government officials are paying particular attention to the informal settlements in Nairobi and other urban areas curtailing most of activities considered non-essential. Refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants therefore face grim choices due to the outbreak of Coronavirus. Due to these difficulties a refugee committed suicide near the UNHCR compound in Nairobi on 13th April 2020.
However not all is doom and gloom. Some organizations and governments are offering support. For example, the government of South Sudan has offered to support their nationals who are students in universities and tertiary colleges by giving an allowance of USD 250 to pay for accommodation and subsistence during this period of lockdown. Kenya Red Cross is also reaching out to some of these vulnerable urban refugees. Yet, the Kenya government must appreciate the fundamental lesson that COVID 19 has spread across the globe; a threat to humanity anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere regardless of nationality, social status, religious conviction or gender.
Dulo Nyaoro is the Director of the Peace and Reconciliation Institute at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya and the lead of the LERRN Kenya Geographic Working Group.