Kakuma Refugee Camp located in Turkana West District near the border with South Sudan that hosts around 99,000 refugees from 13 countries, mainly from Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Sudan, Burundi, has experienced the first general election of the entire camp since its establishment in 1992 on 30th June 2012.
Tomoko Yasunaga, an International UN Volunteer assigned as Peace Building Officer of UNHCR sub-office Kakuma, organized this election mobilizing around 600 refugee volunteers and 250 Kenyan and international staff of all aid agencies which are based in Kakuma together with around 100 refugee and Kenyan security personnel. Refugee volunteers, Kenyan and international staff were working as electoral committees and presiding officers at 91 polling stations and tens of thousands refugees who are above 18 years old voted for their leaders and many of them experienced the election for the first time in their life.
The long journey started in 2010, a few months after she arrived in Kakuma. As a Peace Building Officer, Tomoko was assigned to promote the peaceful co-existence among refugees and began to realize there was a gap in the existing leadership structure, since it was based on nationality, tribe and clans, thus aggravating tribalism and clan-based divisions. As a result, it brought about a situation in which mutual cooperation between communities was weak and often ineffective, especially in terms of the sharing of limited resources. There were also challenges in conveying information between leaders and community members as the number of refugees in each community was disproportional. What is more, issues relating to the provision of services and issues affecting persons living with disabilities, gender, children, and particular groups were not well represented by the structure.
Tomoko together with her counterparts in NGOs, government and senior UNHCR staff started discussing ideas around restructuring the leadership to one based on constituencies made up of blocks and zones and camps, for enhancing effective service delivery, information sharing and mutual cooperation among refugees. Despite the agreement and full consensus of all agencies, the concept had been completely rejected by refugee leaders who had been sitting in their position for long time and their community members who were influenced by them. The distrust between different ethnic groups due to their historical background was also a great obstacle for their acceptance. However, she and her colleagues undauntedly tried to convince the refugee community members, and gradually the aim of the new leadership structure became to be infiltrated to the refugee population and finally accepted by all communities.
Based on the concept, the camp constitution was drafted by the refugee representatives of each nationality and passed by the government that manages the camp, all agencies and the refugee leaders, and electoral committees were formed in each constituency, a total of 91 blocks.
Since the election was the first experience for most of refugees, the members of electoral committees had to undergo training in democracy and the concept of fair and free elections. Despite the initial strong rejection, around 600 refugee volunteers became to be keen on serving for improvement of their communities.
However, although the process finally seemed to be on the right track, there were still numerous challenges that needed to be overcome such as the voters’ registration, mobilization of Kenyan staff, logistics, security measures, absence of female candidates due to cultural reasons, civic educations especially for illiterate populations and etc. Tomoko and her team overcame each challenge one by one and, the general election was finally conducted two years after the start of the project. Almost 1,000 staff including refugees, Kenyans and internationals, regardless of their positions, united to work hard and make this exercise a big success. Despite the concerns of security risks and chaos, the election in 91 constituencies went peacefully, and refugees congratulated the winners as the election results were announced and success of the first election of the entire camp.
However, this was not the goal of the journey. Tomoko and her colleagues are still working on ensuring that the new system promotes the fair and effective distribution of services and information, and mutual support, and eventually enhance peaceful co-existence among refugees. She strongly wishes that refugees who came from war-torn countries to learn how to live in peace by overcoming tribalism and build democratic society, and eventually rebuild peaceful societies in their own countries in the future.
Photo©UNHCR UN Volunteer Tomoko Yasunaga (in blue cap) poses with elated refugees at the Kakuma Refugee Camp on the sidelines of the camp’s first ever General Election