A refugee’s journey to the UNHCR in Nairobi

The Nairobi UNHCR office, which serves all of East Africa. Somali and Sudanese refugees line up outside each morning to file claims or change their applications. Photo courtesy of Cathy Fairley

Last week I had the privilege of touring the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At this Nairobi office, refugees’ hopes for resettlement can either sink or float, but most often they stagnate.

This UNHCR office serves all of East Africa, but staff here are kept busy mostly with Somali refugees who continue to escape their violence-soaked country and pour across the Kenyan border, just as they have for years.

The Nairobi office receives around 100 new refugee claimants each day. That total has shrunk dramatically since the height of East Africa’s famine and drought last year, when 500 to 700 new people arrived each day. The UN’s office here couldn’t handle so many, so that rush created a backlog of 12,000 applications awaiting final approval.

These days, 300 to 500 applicants line up outside the building each morning. During my team’s visit, the lineup was fairly small; most of the daily visitors are admitted inside for processing before noon.

Once past the security checkpoint with metal detectors, guards, and finger print scanning, the refugee claimants come to a small office with staff stationed at desks. It’s not a big, fancy office, but the refugees can conduct business in 25 different languages, thanks to the UN’s many translators.

Since 2008, all these applications eventually have to go through Lucie Gagné, the Canadian who works at the UNHCR as head of refugee resettlement. She approves each case after staff interviewers check if each applicant has a legitimate story and refugee claim. Kenyans have sometimes tried to register on the list for resettlement, or Somalis with violent pasts try to receive status.

Gagné will soon have some help handling the long waiting list of cases, though: the Kenyan government has sent staff to be trained in process, and eventually hopes to take over refugee approvals and registrations. It’s uncertain when those changes will happen or how effective the national government will be.

The Somalis who come to Nairobi are stepping into uncertainty. The Kenyan government doesn’t provide any support for refugees who leave the official refugee camps in Dadaab or Kakuma, but people journey to the capital anyway. The camps are extremely crowded (at one point 350,000 people lived in a space designed for 90,000) and full of violence, and the city offers some hope of income and dignity while they wait for resettlement in another country.

“I think what keeps them in Nairobi, instead of in the camp where they have food and medical care, is they want to do something with their life,” Gagné said. Even this temporary home in Nairobi is a stopgap. Their real hope is to be chosen for resettlement in Canada, Australia, or some other country.

Unfortunately, the dream is a long time in coming, if it ever arrives at all. It can take one and a half years for a refugee application to be approved by Gagné and her team, despite the staff’s frequent 12-hour days.

There are an estimated 100,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, currently living in Nairobi. Only one per cent each year is chosen for resettlement in a new country, and more arrive each day, so most will spend their lives waiting here for a ticket to a “promised land” that may never materialize.

“There’s no prospect of integrating [in Kenya],” Gagné said. “There’s no prospect of going home. You have a lost generation.”

I was surprised at a few things during my visit to the UNHCR office. I had a preconception of the UN as a mostly European or North American organization, but that wasn’t the case. Staff seemed to be mostly African.

But especially surprising was the level of compassion I saw from the people we spoke to.  I expected a cold, bureaucratic machine but instead found people who seemed to offer genuine compassion for refugees and struggle with no being able to help more.

Gagné was even sympathetic of those who try to lie, cheat or bribe to speed up their claim: “It’s desperation, it’s survival,” she explained, and added she would probably do the same in their position.

“As a humanitarian organization, we try to be inclusive rather than selective, but be consistent,” she said, and deciding which families among many worthy cases should be approved for resettlement was an obvious dilemma for her.

Of course, talking later with Nairobi refugees who are waiting for the UN’s help reveals an entirely different opinion on the office’s compassion and mercy. For them, the process is slow, unfair, and dispassionate. But for me, the tour was a remarkably candid and revealing look at a refugee’s search for peace and good people’s efforts to provide security through the world’s flawed systems.


14 thoughts on “A refugee’s journey to the UNHCR in Nairobi

  1. Thanks Scott. It’s good to know there is so much compassion in the process, but it is frustrating that it is so slow and that so few are approved. Our system’s are very flawed indeed.

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s good to get some balanced, non-sensationalist views on this problem. My sister Rhoda is over there as well. She pointed me to your blog.

  3. Something I learned too was that the UN cannot make any country accept refugees for resettlement. I’m thinking the fact that countries like Canada continue to accept such a small percentage of refugees is a huge factor in the backlog.

    • It’s true, most of the responsibility rests with national governments. The UN just helps connect a small percentage of refugees with the countries willing to accept them.

  4. I visited my sister (Lucie Gagné) last fall and l had a glimpse of a day in the UNHCR office. It reminded me how lucky we are to enjoy a peaceful life. Thanks for sharing Scott, and I’m proud of you sis!

  5. I just impressed
    many are helpless in UNHCR, however, many somali women are crying out for help… and view really get help.
    I think someone need to write documentary.
    I will contribute what I know.

  6. it is important to high light the opportunity UNHCR use to provide to the people who are suffering.
    .as we are young american society we will try to ask given more help to UNHCR where ever they are and when ever they needed thank you for helping refugees who lost there countries and hope.

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