“Social distancing is a luxury” does it say on the Norwegian Refugee Councils website. While citizens in Germany and other countries start protesting against the new, yet temporary laws of their governments, others wish to have the possibility to follow the guidelines. Overcrowded camps and little to no access to sanitary infrastructure are common challenges in refugee camps around the world. However, these conditions become especially dangerous during the corona crisis. The Kenyan Dadaab Refugee Complex, in which Safo Hadija Ahmed, legal expert, and Human Rights activist, is working, is no exception. Overall, the Kenyan government is handling the crisis well. Experts like Professor Anzala from the University of Nairobi warned very early, in February 2020, to be on high alert over the virus. Kenya´s cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, has since cautioned to prepare for the worst. Currently, the government combats the spread of the virus by imposing a night-time curfew, suspending international air traffic, imposing strict quarantine conditions on people who have previously entered Kenya and requiring its citizens to work from home, if possible. As we speak, there have been 197 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with eight deaths. How is the situation in one of the largest refugee camps in the country? What challenges do people face? Safo Hadija Ahmed gives her insights on the situation in Kenya during the lockdown as well as in the Dadaab Refugee Complex.
"Life has drastically changed for everybody"
Interview with Safo Hadija Ahmed from the Norwegian Refugee Council
"I support refugees to claim their rights"
L.I.S.A.: Ms Ahmed, you have received your Post-diploma in law and almost started working for a top law firm in Nairobi – instead, you joined the humanitarian aid organization NRC here in Kenya. That is an interesting choice. Please tell us a bit about your background and your work here in Dadaab Refugee Complex.
Ahmed: I have a Post graduate diploma from the Kenya School of law and Bachelor’s degree in Law. I completed my pupillage (a 6 month attachment to a law firm, approved institutions or organizations) at the State Law Office and afterwards continued working there at the Business Registration Services. I started working with the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2017 at the ICLA (Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance) department. Through ICLA activities, I support refugees and surrounding host communities to claim their rights through dissemination of Information, provision of Legal Counselling and Assistance, capacity building of duty bearers, support for collaborative dispute resolution structures and advocacy on 3 main thematic areas; Legal and Civil Documentation, Housing, Land and Property Rights and Employment Laws and Procedure.
"It really helps that the government is keeping everyone updated, there is a flow of information"
L.I.S.A.: Professor Anzala from KAVI Institute of Clinical Research at the University of Nairobi warned in February saying that Kenya should be on high alert over the virus. Kenya´s cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, has cautioned to prepare for the worst. As we speak, there have been 197 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with eight deaths, let us hope that the numbers stay low. Could you tell us about the situation in Kenya right now in general? Is there a lockdown or other changes in everyday life? How do people, how do you cope with the situation yourself?
Ahmed: The government has put measures, directives and regulations in the hopes of stopping the corona virus from spreading. The measures included shutting down borders, suspension of air travel except for cargo flights and banning all meetings and gatherings. All schools and higher learning institution have been closed and learning suspended. Most government institutions have been closed and state officers have been working from home. The government also asked businesses and companies to allow staff work from home except for employees working in critical or essential services. Recently, the government announced partial lockdown in counties that recorded the corona virus and ordered state curfew. Life has drastically changed for everybody and although people are anxious, it really helps that the government is keeping everyone updated on the situation and there is a flow of information.
"Avoiding misinformation and myths on the virus"
L.I.S.A.: For refugees and internally displaced people, the situation is the worst. That is true for Germany, Greece, and all countries where people are forced to stay in overcrowded camps. “Social distancing is a luxury”, does it say on NRC´s website. What can you tell us about the situation in the Dadaab refugee camp you are working in? What challenges do people face in the camp, also concerning the precautions to prevent a spread of the virus?
Ahmed: The situation in Dadaab is quite calm right now because no cases have been reported yet. Generally refugee settings are overcrowded and Dadaab refugee camp is no different. The main challenge for refugees is that they cannot completely distance themselves from each other. They do not have the luxury to stay and remain in their homes as they share social amenities such as water taps and latrines. NRC is working closely with UNHCR to ensure that every person is informed and is aware of the situation on Covid-19 through sending bulk sms, disseminating information on radio and using existing community structures to get feedback from the community. This is mainly to avoid misinformation and myths on the virus. Making refugees aware of the situation will help them understand and take personal action to avoid getting infected. NRC suspended most its activities that required gatherings and instead modified it using technology. The use of technology has enabled NRC to continue working with refugees through telephone interviews and remote trainings providing advice, gathering information and feedback from the community.
"Vulnerabilities of displaced people and refugees have been magnified by corona"
L.I.S.A.: What specific hurdles do you experience in your daily working life now during the corona crisis? Do you feel protected yourself?
Ahmed: Being away from home and my family during this time has made me very anxious. I used to watch a lot of COVID-19 updates on the news and on YouTube which made me feel worse and more anxious about the situation. I decided to stay and deliver because refugees and people who are displaced depend heavily on humanitarian agencies. They are more vulnerable and need our assistance now more than ever and I do not want them to feel like they have been abandoned. My decision to stay was reinforced because my organization put in place measures to ensure that everyone who stayed was safe including provision of masks, sanitizers, conducting meetings through zoom meetings to ensure social distancing, and the option to leave/withdraw where I do not feel safe.
The world should not forget that vulnerabilities of displaced people and refugees have been magnified by corona virus which essentially means that the response/assistance should too. Many Humanitarian organizations have been forced to modify their assistance to respond to corona virus and still offer support to existing refugee needs. This has become very expensive and so I ask donors to increase their contirbution and support to aid organizations.
Ms Safo Hadija Ahmed answered the questions in written form.