Module 7: Refugee and Host Community Relationships

Oftentimes refugee camps are located in the most remote, poor and undesirable parts of a given country. For example, Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya is located in “one of the remotest parts of Kenya” where “nothing grows agriculturally.”(1) The refugees there live among the Turkana, nomadic pastoralists, many of whom live in absolute poverty and have needs that have gone unmet for decades. However, the Turkana do not benefit from international aid that would make living in such an inhospitable environment easier. According to international law, in order to receive international aid, a person must live outside the country of origin and without state protection. While the refugees receive international aid, the Turkana (who are just as poor) do not. Unfortunately, this causes an imbalance that has resulted in the host community feeling hostile and blaming their problems on the refugees. It also raises fundamental questions about human rights and equality since, in this case, the refugees who receive free shelter, food, firewood and healthcare, have better conditions than their hosts.(2)

Most studies and international attention focus on refugee camps and the needs and problems of the refugees themselves, while the impact that the refugees have on the host community is often overlooked. The construction of a refugee camp, and the subsequent influx of thousands of refugees from different ethnic groups and countries, changes the environment of the host community in positive and negative ways. In most cases, initial kindness gives way to hostility as security issues and resource scarcities arise. The host community’s attitude toward refugees will depend on the economic, political, and security situation within the host state. Importantly, refugee camps are only set up and maintained where there is agreement between the UNHCR and the host state.

Water and Food Supply

Since the arrival of refugees to Kakuma, the host community’s water supply has been severely compromised. Now Turkana hosts argue “that their women are forced to travel long distances to fetch water, resulting in chest pains and miscarriages.” Lack of water, soil erosion, and deforestation due to refugees have also threatened the food security of the Turkana, who depend on pasture and water for survival.(3) Similarly, in Chad and Darfur, “where there are large congregations of displaced persons in an arid environment, there are huge demands on the scarce local water resources, and this gives rise to friction with the local communities.”(4)

Security

Refugees are often seen as a security threat to the host community. For example, the Turkana accused the Dinka (a Sudanese ethnic group) in Kakuma Refugee Camp of raping their women and cutting down their trees.(5) Liberian refugees in Ghana are widely cited by Ghanaians as the cause of recent armed robberies and wife-stealing. In addition, the Ghanaian population says that Liberians engage in illegal activities such as prostitution, drugs, robbery and gambling.(6) Similarly, in the Great Lakes refugee crisis, host states blamed refugee populations for increased violence within their own countries, as governments retaliated against armed refugees who had fled to over their borders. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, directly following the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and continuing to the present day, the Hutu refugee exodus sparked renewed ethnic violence. In this case, Congolese locals have become involved in cross-border tribal violence between Rwandan refugee groups and the Rwandan government.(7)

Education

There have been mixed reports on the impact of refugees on local education. At Kakuma Refugee Camp, refugees often have more opportunities for education than the locals. The refugees can go to local schools, or they can attend one of the many schools in the refugee camp. However, the locals are not allowed to attend the schools in refugee camps.(8) However, at Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, there are fewer restrictions, and the local population has benefited from the construction of new schools for the refugee camp. The increase in schools has increased access to education and benefitted both refugees and local Ghanaians. A native teacher explained that there has been “a remarkable improvement in education level as compared to many villages around Buduburam. Because of them there have been occasions that the UNHCR has paid fees for school children whose parents were not able to pay, including the natives.”(9) Some of the primary schools in Zambia’s Meheba Refugee Camp include both refugee children and local children. Uninhabited houses left by refugees who have since repatriated or relocated can be taken up by Zambians who are then within the UNHCR school district. This creates more of a connection between the host country and its visitors.(10)

Economy

Refugees influence the local economy in a variety of ways. In general, the increase in population results in an increased demand for products and goods, which raises prices and the standard of living in and around the refugee camp. For instance, when refugees from Burundi and Rwanda arrived in western Tanzania in 1993 and 1994, the prices of non-aid food items increased greatly, while there were more modest increases for aid-related food items.(11) At Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, the standard of living has increased significantly because of the remittances received by the Liberians. Commodities such as Coca-Cola, phone cards and sugar are much more expensive near the camp.(12) The influx of refugees also increases job competition. At Kakuma Refugee Camp, job competition is “intense because NGOs tend to hire refugees, who work for less than the Kenyans.” Clinics in Kakuma, for instance, employ ten refugees to assist one Kenyan. The hospital alone employs 78 refugees and only 21 Kenyans. Similar disparities exist in Kenyan schools. A primary teacher’s salary is KS 1875 for a refugee and KS 11,790 for Kenyans. This disparity in employment opportunities causes additional tension between refugees and the host communities.(13)

It is important to note that local hosts do not necessarily suffer economically from the presence of a refugee camp. Though agricultural workers are likely to suffer from an increase in cheap labor, non-agricultural workers and self-employed farmers may benefit from the influx of refugees. For example, when refugees arrived in western Tanzania, business flourished and “with the increased local market, there was an upsurge in business and trade conducted by both local hosts and refugees. Tanzanian entrepreneurs from around the country also flocked to the area.”(14)

Health and Sanitation

In general, the influx of a great number of refugees causes an increase in communicable infectious diseases in the surrounding areas. At the same time, this increase is often accompanied by the improvement of health and sanitation services in the area. At some camps, locals are allowed to utilize the health services at the refugee camp. For example, at a refugee camp in western Tanzania, “around 30% of the health services beneficiaries are reported to be local people.”(15) Nevertheless, there are cases where refugees have better health indicators than the surrounding villages, which can lead to tension. For example, in Nepal, Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, Tanzania and Bangladesh, all countries with large populations, the refugees have a lower percentage of low-birth weight infants as compared to the national population.(16)

Environment

When refugees arrive at a camp, they are often in great need of timber for construction and cooking, which puts a great strain on the timber resources of the local community.(17) For instance, the Turkana population, host to the refugees at Kakuma “are alarmed at the rate at which refugees cause deforestation.”(18) This causes frequent altercations and fights between the local population and the refugees because the hosts argue that their livestock largely depend on the trees, which the refugees have been cutting down. On the other hand, the UNHCR supplies refugees in Meheba, Zambia with tents and then helps them to construct homes out of clay bricks made from the earth, leaving less of an impact on the environment in the Northwest Province.(19)

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Footnotes

(1) Aukot, E. “It is Better to be a Refugee Than a Turkana in Kakuma: Revisiting the Relationship between Hosts and Refugees in Kenya.” Global Movements for Refugees and Migrant Rights. 21.3 (2003); 73-83. Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Aukot, E. “It is Better to be a Refugee Than a Turkana in Kakuma: Revisiting the Relationship between Hosts and Refugees in Kenya.”

(4) Cronin, A. et al., “A review of water and sanitation provision in refugee camps in association with selected health and nutrition indicators – the need for integrated service provision.”

(5) Aukot, E. “It is Better to be a Refugee Than a Turkana in Kakuma: Revisiting the Relationship between Hosts and Refugees in Kenya.”

(6) Porter, G., et. al. “Linkages between Livelihood Opportunities and Refugee-Host Relations: Learning from the Experiences of Liberian Camp-based Refugees in Ghana.” Journal of Refugee Studies. 21.2 (2008) Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(7) Prunier, Gérard (2009). Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-537420-9.

(8) Aukot, E. “It is Better to be a Refugee Than a Turkana in Kakuma: Revisiting the Relationship between Hosts and Refugees in Kenya.”

(9) Boamah-Gyau, K.  “The Socio-cultural and economic impact of Refugees on the host Indigenous Communities in West Africa: A case study of Liberian Refugees at Buduburam Community in Ghana.” Thesis. University of Tromso. June 2008. Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(10) UNCHR Refugee Settlement Meheba

(11) Alix-Garcia, J., and Saah, D. “The Effect of Refugee Inflows on Host Communities: Evidence from Tanzania.” The World Bank Economic Review. 24.1. (2010):148-170. Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(12) Boamah-Gyau, K.  “The Socio-cultural and economic impact of Refugees on the host Indigenous Communities in West Africa: A case study of Liberian Refugees at Buduburam Community in Ghana.” Thesis. University of Tromso. June 2008. Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(13) Montclos, M., and Kagwanja, P. “Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socio-economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern Kenya.” Journal of Refugee Studies. 13.2 (2000): 205-222. Accessed 18 August 2010.

(14) Verwimp, P., and Maystadt, Jean-François. “Winners and Losers Among a Refugee-Hosting Population.” (CORE Discussion Papers, 2009). Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Bruijn, B. “Human Development Research Paper 2009/25. The Living Conditions and Well-being of Refugees.”

(17) Verwimp, P., and Maystadt, Jean-François. “Winners and Losers Among a Refugee-Hosting Population.” (CORE Discussion Papers, 2009). Accessed on 19 August 2010.

(18) Aukot, E. “It is Better to be a Refugee Than a Turkana in Kakuma: Revisiting the Relationship between Hosts and Refugees in Kenya.”

(19) Life in Meheba Settlement. Life in Meheba Refugee Settlement. 25 June 2009.