Imagine having to flee from home because your sexual orientation poses a threat to your life. This is reality for John and David. The gay couple from a country close to Kenya sought safety in Kakuma, the town in north-east Kenya where a camp hosts 96,000 refugees and where Dutch Minister of Immigration Gerd Leers recently visited.
By Maike Winters, Kakuma and Nairobi
Resettlement. The magic word for many refugees. Every year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) selects a few thousand for the chance to start a new life elsewhere. The US is the project’s strongest supporter, taking in 50,000 refugees from all over the world every year. The Netherlands’ much smaller programme has an annual quota of 500, although this week the Dutch Minister of Immigration, Integration and Asylum Affairs, Gerd Leers, delivered some very big news to two residents of Kakuma.
“From the moment we arrived here, we hoped to get out as soon as possible,” says John while clutching his partner David’s hand. “We have to sleep on the ground, people are hostile to us.”
The two men are among the lucky few selected for a resettlement programme interview. It’s a long process, and they don’t know yet if a country will accept them. “We heard we could maybe go to the Netherlands,” says John. “Let’s hope so!”
According to the UNHCR head at the camp, Guy Avognon, their programme offers hope in otherwise hopeless circumstances.
“Some people have lived here for 20 years, some were born here,” he explains. “There are very few jobs in the camp and they are not allowed outside the camp. They can’t go back to their home countries; resettlement to another country is what they live for.”
Yet only 1 percent of the enormous group of refugees actually gets the chance to board the plane bound for a new world. There are simply not enough places.
A few metres from the couple, a refugee from Somalia walks by. Jojo is missing a hand. Al-Shabaab chopped it off at a public trial in his hometown of Kismayo. The al-Quaeda cell accused him of stealing a shirt, which he denies. He fled the country after the incident.
“I can never go back, and I have nobody here. It’s been three years now. I pray to God every day for things to change,” Jojo says, showing a picture of his severed hand. He had an interview for resettlement, but wasn’t accepted.
The invitations a country offers are restricted by certain conditions. Minister Leers explains those of the Netherlands. “We want people who are open to our culture, who are willing to learn our language,” says Minister Leers. "We had problems in the past with people who couldn’t integrate.”
He illustrates with an anecdote. “There was a woman from Pakistan, for example, with many children. She couldn’t take care of them and, in the end, all her children were separated from her in the Netherlands. We don’t want this, so we will focus more on integration chances of refugees.”
Specific constraints make it hard for UNHCR to attend to the most urgent cases. Hardly everyone gets an opportunity for resettlement. “All these conditions make it quite elitist,” says Avognon.
“We don’t want to put any judgment on what governments are doing, because no matter how many places they give, they give them. And that is very much appreciated. But sometimes the risk is that we lose the humanitarian side of it, by just focusing on highly qualified people, people who can benefit the economy.”
Some win, many wait
Jojo wanders around the camp. Will he ever get the chance to leave? “Every morning I wake up, hoping I will go to America,” he says. “It’s the only hope I have.”
Meanwhile, John and David have gotten the surprise of their lives. On the very same day we talk, they will be flown to Nairobi. Minister Leers is waiting there to personally invite them to live in the Netherlands – that is, after ensuring they are willing to work hard on arrival. “It’s the best thing that has happened to us,” says John, his eyes gleaming.
Names of refugees have been changed to protect their identity.