Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Offshore detention and the recolonization of Africa

***Update: AU pushback against attempts by the EU to recolonize Africa by offshoring migrant detention.

Image result for kakuma refugee camp
Your tax dollars at work.

The US recently got its very own refugee camp, the first in many years on US soil, called by many the "tent city." It's in Texas. There are over 2,000 children in this special camp built just for them. This news comes hard on the heels of a rash of other uncomfortable reporting about US migrant and refugee programs. A few days ago, Victoria Law wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about how private prison contractors use immigrants for forced labor. The new spotlight in the US media about our shameful immigration prison system, which houses at least 42,000 people, is very welcome. But what a lot of people don't know is that the biggest population of migrants and refugees in US migrant jail are actually outside the US, being held in refugee camps run by UNHCR and paid for mostly by US and EU tax dollars.

Kakuma camp in Kenya houses close to 200,000 people, mostly fleeing war and poverty in Somalia. Kakuma might be outside the US, hidden from the sight of most Americans, but make no mistake, Americans own it. Never heard of it? That's funny, because it's probably been around for most of your life. Many of its occupants have been there for their entire lives. What does this have to do with the US? The US government is one of the biggest funders of Kakuma camp, as it is a major funder of refugee camps all over the world. The US government has been in the concentration camp business for quite some time.

As a UNHCR report, published way back in 2000, explained, the people living in Kakuma, some of them for their entire lives, are not Kenyan citizens. In most cases, they do not have the right to leave the camp. As a UNHCR staff member put it at the time, the people in Kakuma are "confined to a small area in an arid corner of Kenya with scant legal access to integration..." Since the publication of this report, things in Kakuma have only gotten worse. Thousands wait hopelessly for resettlement, while the situation in Somalia shows no sign of resolving.

Recently, TEDx was lambasted in the Guardian newspaper for hosting an event in Kakuma showing individual refugee problem-solving and resiliency, as though the people living there were autonomous individuals in control of their own lives, instead of the residents of a modern-day concentration camp. The Kenyan government continues to restrict refugee movement in violation of the 1951 Convention, but this is seen as a necessary trade-off to keeping Somali refugees safely in Kenya and away from both mass bodily harm and violence, but also any chance of a future somewhere that isn't an inhospitable desert. But while Kenya provides the land and the legal right for the refugees to stay in limbo, the US and EU pay for the camp, they run the resettlement program and they are in charge of any long-term solution. This system portrayed by almost everyone as "humanitarian aid," which it was for perhaps the first five years of Kakuma's existence.

But now, almost 30 years later, is Kakuma still a humanitarian emergency? Is the US government still trying to help people, or is it trying to keep them in one place? UNHCR calls Kakuma "protracted refugee situation." I call it a concentration camp. It's a place where hope goes to die and the future doesn't exist.

Containment is at best a failed strategy. It certainly has caused a great deal of strain on Kenya. Periodically, the Kenyan government threatens to forcibly expel Somali refugees from Kenya. Recent terrorist attacks by Al Shabab will likely only increase calls for the closure of the camps. We hear a lot about Al Shabab, but much less about the hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis living in our off-shore detention camps.

Nothing in this article is meant to take attention away from the very real crisis of detention that is ramping up in the US, but make no mistake, we are also paying for the biggest prison system in the history of the world, a camp archipelago that stretches from the deserts of Africa to the jungles of Asia, with no end in sight.

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