Refugee-led initiatives are stepping up and need to be supported - during the pandemic and beyond

By By Victor Nyamori

When the government of Kenya announced a nationwide 7 pm to 5 am curfew together with a stay at home order on 25th March and the government of Uganda put Kampala city and other towns on lockdown on 30th March to curb the spread of COVID-19 a highly infectious respiratory disease, it had significant implications for thousands of refugees who already struggle to enjoy their right to a decent livelihood and their overwhelming dependence on the informal economy.

As a result of the restrictions many formal and informal businesses were forced to close as some laid off staff. Consequently, as for many others, income streams for many refugees were greatly reduced. At the same time, international and local NGOs working with refugees have reduced their operations as many opted to work from home. Consequently, several refugees had no option but to reach out to community-based refugee led-organisations for support. So, in the absence of others, refugee-led initiatives took up the mantle to respond to some of the protection, psychosocial and livelihood needs of refugees who are at heightened risk. Ironically this could be one of the positive long-lasting impacts of the pandemic – refugees themselves playing a bigger role in the decisions and actions needed to better realise their rights.

When I called Bahati Ghislain, a Congolese refugee, on the afternoon of 18th April, he was finalizing food distributions to refugees at a place known as Rongai, a peri-urban township, about 20 Km, South West of Nairobi Central Business District.

Bahati is the founder of KINTSUGI, a refugee-led community-based organization formed in 2016 to improve the lives of refugees who reside in Nairobi by advising them where to access services while also implementing community outreach and empowerment sessions. Since the closure of many businesses due to health regulations in response to Covid-19, his organisation has had to increase its operations to support a growing number of refugees with impacted livelihoods.

KINTSUGI, which literally refers to the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by using powdered gold, had just distributed a modest food basket to each of about 65 refugee households from different nationalities including refugees from Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Burundi. The distribution also supported some vulnerable Kenyan households in the hosting community demonstrating that needs during the pandemic cut across different national origins.

These food baskets would not have been possible had there not been support from friends and well-wishers, especially from East African refugees who had been able to travel to start new lives in Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. These refugees themselves had once benefited from KINTSUGI’s program before they were fortunate to be resettled.

Across the border in Uganda and specifically, Kampala, YARID (Young African Refugees for Integral Development) which is also a refugee-led organization, has been delivering food and non-food items to groups particularly in a vulnerable situation -older refugees, those differently abled, single mothers, unaccompanied and separated children.

Robert Hakiza, who is the Executive Director of YARID and founding member of a global collective of refugee headed organisations called the Refugee-Led Network, shared that every time his team delivers food to the identified refugees in Kampala, they take the opportunity to share basic information on hygiene and sanitation for prevention to COVID-19. They have so far reached more than 150 households across Kampala since the start of the lockdown, no small feat considering that there is government restriction on movement, and this has meant that Robert and his team must walk several kilometers to deliver food to families.

While the Governments of Kenya and Uganda have announced social welfare support to the most vulnerable in the community during the lockdown and stay at home orders comprising of food and cash payments, there have been concerns that refugees with specific needs are not being included in the state welfare program.

In Nairobi, Kenya, local authorities have already profiled households they classify as vulnerable by registering their mobile phone numbers. However, refugees have not been included in this exercise. The Public Finance Management regulations, 2020 that gives guidelines for the provision of emergency relief to the most vulnerable do not include refugees in the list of those considered vulnerable.

In Kampala, high-level government officials in charge of food distribution have been quoted by the media as saying that refugees in urban areas will not be included in food baskets distributed to vulnerable Ugandans in urban low-income areas as they are not nationals. This discriminatory approach is contrary to Uganda's international and regional legal obligations to guarantee the right to food and other economic and social rights to everybody within its borders. It also runs contrary to the country’s longstanding welcoming attitude and support for refugees.  

With the risk of refugees falling outside of government-led interventions for those deemed to be most vulnerable, the role of refugee-led organisations is even more important.

This is also recognising that refugee-led initiatives and refugee-led organisations are experts in understanding their unique situation and have a proven track record of providing practical and effective interventions and support for at-risk refugees. In these circumstances, it is vital that governments, national and international organisations responding to COVID-19, without avoiding their own obligations and responsibilities, should integrate refugee-led organizations and initiatives as part of the response.

The Global Compact on Refugees adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2018 recognized the key role played by the refugee-led organization in responding to the protection and livelihood needs of refugee communities. This was also confirmed in 2019 during the Global Refugee Forum, where refugee-led organizations around the globe pushed for international organizations, states, and multilateral institutions to pledge improved commitments to support refugee-led initiatives and refugee-led community-based organization in refugee operations.

Despite the many successes that organizations like KINTSUGI and YARID are having, they share several challenges. Burdensome requirements for registration and acquiring legal status to operate a community organisation as non-national prevents many other refugees led start-ups from operating. KINTSUGI was forced to include a Kenyan national as one of its directors to be able to be registered as a community organisation with the relevant state ministry.

As with many other community-based organisations securing funds to support their operations and their community activists has also been a challenge. International organisations that can subgrant refugee-led initiatives have indicated that the strict vetting and compliance standards set by state and multilateral donors as a reason for not engaging in refugee-led initiates and organizations. Whilst it is important that due diligence in funding is not unduly compromised this does not need to come at the expense of supporting innovative and much-needed community-led initiatives. In this context, donors should be looking at good practice by others to encourage proactive support.

While local and international organizations have instructed their staff to work from home in response to the travel restriction and struggling to offer services virtually, refugee-led organizations and initiatives are now filling their shoes more than ever. It is high time to recognize and support the role played by these refugee-led initiatives.

Inclusion of refuge led organizations as equal partners in programming to find solutions to forced displacement challenges amid the COVID-19 response should be a priority. Relevant stakeholders should strengthen their relationship including increasing trust and transparency with refugee-led organizations and affected refugees to ensure no one is left behind in the prevention and response to COVID-19.

Some practical initial steps should include identifying refugee-led organizations and clearly understanding their role in the community they operate in; providing adequate resources; facilitating their registration and legal status whilst enhancing their technical capacity to carry out specialized services beyond the immediate COVID-19 response.

As part of building a better world for everybody post-COVID-19, let us ensure that those voices that have too often been marginalized such as refugees are not just listened to but raised up to ensure a more sustainable future for all our communities.