If you are a relatively well-informed person, staying up to date with world news, you are likely to be aware of the present refugee crisis, currently at a staggering 108.4 million displaced or stateless people according to the UNHCR, 50% larger than the UK population. You have probably seen the boats of people trying desperately to make it to safety. You might even be reasonably aware of the current condition of Syrian, Afghan, and Ukrainian refugees.
“We must provide what little we can and pray that it all works out.” Paul, South Sudan
What you probably would not believe is the people who you have seen flooding into the UK are the lucky ones. Yes, they have experienced tragedy beyond what most of us could imagine, but they are also privileged enough to be a population directly impacting Europe and are worthy of European media attention and sparsely given sympathy. This article focuses on a population who were originally displaced over 30 years ago, the vast majority of whom were unaccompanied refugee minors. The Lost Boys of Sudan attracted the world’s attention when roughly 20,000 displaced children trekked from what is now South Sudan to Ethiopia – then to northern Kenya. Witnessing two civil wars fuelled by the genocidal activities of their national government, most of the displaced South Sudanese have lived in Kakuma refugee camp since 1992.
While a fraction of this population has been given resettlement opportunities in the USA, Canada, and Australia, these efforts have virtually stopped since the early 2000s, despite continuing insecurity in their home nation.
I was in Kakuma doing my doctoral fieldwork with this population between November 2017 and August 2018, witnessing their daily lifestyle. Most refugees in Kenya are prohibited from working legally, forced to live within a refugee camp, and due to these restrictive policies, remain dependent on the UNHCR after 30 years of displacement. Due to increasing funding restrictions, this population’s food ration accounts only for 70% of the recommended daily caloric intake, keeping them on the edge of starvation. A variety of diseases and infections are common, including malaria and cholera, often treated with only paracetamol due to the lack of resources. Finally, due to their limited rights in Kenya, these refugees are highly vulnerable to police harassment, in which they are constantly exploited for bribes they cannot afford, always risking detainment and deportation if they cannot pay.
This population has lived on the edge of survival for decades, waiting for international refugee institutions to do their job and find a solution to their displacement. In the absence of the help they are legally entitled to and in a world that has all but forgotten them, they have adapted to rely on their traditional cultural values for community survival. In an environment where almost everyone has almost nothing, they share. They share for the survival of the collective, acting as a form of social insurance needed for when their family will inevitably be in a circumstance of crisis, whether facing starvation, a serious illness, or deportation to their home nation currently still at war. One man named James said: “When someone is arrested, I contribute (towards a bribe). If someone says ‘I don’t have shoes’, then I can give them. This builds your relationships with the people around you. We don’t just share money and things; we share our problems. If you do not do these things, then you have no relationships, and you have no one to support you when you are in need.”
Paul, a South Sudanese pastor in the camp said: “Of course, it is difficult to share what little we have… (but) you cannot suffer here while someone has something. You must support the community otherwise many of us would have perished…if a family is struggling, my wife and I will discuss because we cannot let them die. How could you let a friend suffer and die while you survive? We must provide what little we can and pray that it all works out.”
The deprivation witnessed by this refugee population is far beyond what most people in the UK could ever imagine. After 30 years in Kakuma, their circumstances have no end in sight, and as refugees, they are prohibited from actively trying to improve their circumstances. They are told by the UNHCR to just wait until people in power find a solution that never comes. In the meantime, as the world forgets, people in this camp die every day. Arguably, the only thing keeping many people in this community alive is their strategies of community solidarity.
The survival strategies adopted by this population, and undoubtedly by other refugee populations forgotten by the world, are important for us to reflect on. This is a system of social insurance in which every person provides what little they can as an investment for the mutual survival of the collective. As increasingly witnessed in our virtually dystopian present, we can no longer rely on institutions to fulfil their role in taking care of the public; we as individuals need to step up and take care of each other. If the cost-of-living crisis and terrifying effects of climate change have taught us nothing else, the people who are traditionally supposed to take care of us are failing, just like the world is failing to adequately respond to the refugee crisis – treating fellow human beings with the basic dignity they deserve. Just because we are privileged now and disconnected from the injustices of the world, does not mean we always will be. We should learn from the South Sudanese refugees of Kakuma, step up as individuals providing what we can to our world’s deteriorating stability, protecting our neighbours and friends from their current insecurity. Only by doing this, providing support in a way our government and politicians have failed, can we guarantee we will be surrounded by the support needed to help us through when we need it the most.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from an academic essay in Anthropology Matters, November, 2020 by the author.