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Squalid Housing Conditions

Most refugees in Nairobi live in appalling and overcrowded conditions. Apart from a single secure accommodation center that houses 190 high-risk security cases and a few ad hoc protected houses, UNHCR does not provide housing assistance, and only a few lucky refugees receive some housing assistance from nongovernmental or faith-based organizations.51 Refugees live in some of the worst housing in Nairobi. The rooms are almost always located in the poorest and least safe neighborhoods: as one social worker working with refugees in Nairobi explained, "the refugees live in the places that no one else wants." 52

Many live in rectangular sheds constructed out of corrugated tin sheets, divided into a single row of five to seven rooms, each with a door to the outside and either tin, wood, or cement walls dividing the rooms. Entire refugee families occupy single rooms as small as fifteen by fifteen feet. Often, there is only a communal pit latrine and limited piped water and electricity. Many have difficulty finding money to pay rent and cope by relying on the generosity of others for housing. Human Rights Watch visited many small houses in which a family was housing others. Other refugee families combine their meager resources and crowd into a single small house. However, most asylum seekers cannot rent an entire house and therefore they resort to renting a single room in a shelter that costs anywhere from Ksh.300 to 800 (U.S.$4 to 10)53 per month in Nairobi. The following examples indicate the difficulties that refugees in Nairobi encounter in obtaining adequate housing:

· Mani W., a Congolese refugee, slept in a Baptist Church for the first two months after he arrived in Nairobi. When it was discovered that he was Catholic, he was asked to move out. When Human Rights Watch visited him in the Dagoretti neighborhood of Nairobi he was renting a room for Ksh.600 (U.S.$8) per month. He was lucky to have cement walls.54

· Human Rights Watch visited a Rwandan family of asylum seekers with two children who were living in a corrugated tin shelter with wooden slat walls. One child was sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the corner, and was covered in a tattered blanket. She was obviously feverish and very sick. They had arrived a few months before from Rwanda.

· In the Dagoretti neighborhood, a Human Rights Watch researcher also visited an apartment building that was still under construction, just an empty cement shell without windows, toilets, water or electricity. The landlord was allowing newly-arrived asylum seekers to sleep in the unfinished rooms until the building was completed (whereupon they would be rendered homeless). When the researcher visited, two Congolese men and a single Congolese woman-all unrelated to each other-had been there since their arrival in late March 2002. 55 They were sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. One man had three children staying with him and was desperately in need. He had a liver problem and had to use a catheter and bag for his urine. The woman had a blanket as well as a cardboard box for sleeping. She had no family with her. She could not afford kerosene or candles; instead she had a single eight-inch wick (but no oil) that she kept near her bed for emergencies.56

· Pauline S., a fifteen-year-old Rwandan girl living in the Riruta neighborhood and seeking asylum from UNHCR explained, "I went to UNHCR for an interview on March 21, 2002 and they gave me an interview date of July 22, 2002. My friends give me accommodation and they give me some food, but I do not know what will happen at the end of the month. My friends are saying I have to move out at the end of the month and that I should get my own place."57

As a result of not paying their rent, refugees are often in conflict with their Kenyan landlords. Fidèle G., a Rwandan boy said, "I couldn't contact UNHCR to tell them my problems, and now my aunt can no longer pay rent for me or herself. Our landlady took some of our property because we continued to live there without paying. I cannot pay the money to get my property back."58 One Congolese man named Din M. found the struggles of life as an urban refugee in Nairobi so difficult that "it might have been better if I died in the DRC." He explained, "Since my arrival in Nairobi I am living in the fifth house. Each time we must move before the rent is due because I cannot pay the landlord."59

The Struggle for Food and other Material Assistance

Apart from securing shelter, asylum seekers spend most of the remainder of their time trying to obtain food and other material assistance. For many it is a daily struggle. UNHCR does not provide food and material assistance to asylum seekers, only to a small portion of recognized refugees who are awaiting resettlement placement. Since the status determination process takes several months or even years in Nairobi, individuals spend a great deal of time waiting to be recognized and without access to the few resources that UNHCR does offer. Assistance from NGOs is limited, and reserved for the most needy. For example, one international NGO60 provides food, blankets, and medical assistance to some 2,000 asylum seekers and refugees.

Consequently, in Nairobi, individuals live as asylum seekers in dire poverty for a long time-months, or even years. One middle-aged Congolese refugee explained to Human Rights Watch that, "My main problem is that I cannot feed my family.... Even since yesterday I have not eaten anything. I just survive day by day."61 Jean F., another female refugee living in the Dagoretti neighborhood told a Human Rights Watch researcher that she was pregnant and she had another child who was about eight years old. She was separated from her husband during the chaos of their flight from the DRC. They were sleeping in a room made out of corrugated tin, and had few blankets or cooking utensils. During the course of her interview, it became obvious that her primary concern was food. She desperately explained how they had nothing to eat that day at all, and repeatedly asked for food while her son stood silently next to her.62

Children in particular have a difficult time finding food, especially when they have many younger siblings who are dependent on them. John D., a sixteen-year-old Rwandan who had recently arrived in Nairobi said, "I am here now with my three young brothers. They are ages five, eight, and thirteen. My biggest worry each day is where to get food for them. There is nowhere to find food for them."63 Although John was receiving some assistance from an NGO he insisted, like many other beneficiaries of the same program, that the once-a-week distributions did not fulfill his family's needs.

Lack of Medical Care: Torture and Sexual Violence Victims

In Nairobi, both asylum seekers and refugees are eligible to receive medical treatment from UNHCR and its implementing partner, the Irish nongovernmental organization called Goal.64 However, in practice most never obtain treatment from UNHCR referrals for one of four reasons: (1) They cannot afford to pay for travel to the UNHCR office to obtain the referral; (2) many are misinformed that they are not allowed to go to UNHCR to ask for medical care until they have been recognized as refugees; (3) those refugees who have been referred to the camps are required to travel to the camps for treatment, unless their condition is extremely serious; or (4) if they do travel to UNHCR, they find that the procedure to receive a referral is particularly cumbersome and is exacerbated by long waiting times. An international NGO working in Nairobi further explained that in practice refugees are helped only in emergency cases and that in fact only the very sickest asylum seekers are ever assisted.65

Those refugees and asylum seekers able to reach UNHCR's offices must line up at about 7:30 a.m. in order to be considered for medical treatment. At approximately 8:30 a.m., the medical officer collects the papers of all the asylum seekers who have appointment slips66 or are recognized refugees. The medical officer does not do an assessment of their medical problems, and instead they are referred to UNHCR's implementing partner, Goal, to do another assessment. If Goal cannot treat an individual at its clinic, he or she is sent to a hospital to get treatment. It is rare that a refugee can receive a referral from UNHCR and be seen by Goal within one day. At a minimum, the process takes two to three days. If an illness occurs over or approaching a weekend, it can take much longer. As one former employee of UNHCR explained, after all of these delays and referrals, "by the time you reach the hospital, your illness will have surely become more acute."67 Goal estimates that 15,000 refugees pass through its offices in Nairobi each year.68

However, as explained above, many refugees and asylum seekers forgo this entire process. Some are assisted by an NGO that provides medical vouchers that needy refugees can use at clinics located directly in their neighborhoods. But this program does not reach every refugee or every neighborhood and eventually the supply of vouchers runs out. As one refugee living in Eastleigh explained, "When we need medical care we can come to [the NGO distribution center] to ask for a medical voucher. But these [medical vouchers] don't come very often because the number of refugees is very large."69

Torture victims and victims of sexual violence are in acute need of psychotherapeutic counseling and medical care. Many of these victims are not getting the treatment they need. Several torture victims in Nairobi have received counseling from Goal, which has several well-trained counselors and interpreters waiting to assist refugees, but refugees are only referred to Goal after a very long wait. Given the slow status determination process, and the large crowds of refugees showing up at UNHCR's offices every day, they are never interviewed in enough detail to reveal their need for treatment. In every case, an asylum seeker is only referred after he or she is able to sit down in a private setting with a protection officer to discuss his or her case. Such a lengthy private interview is only available when the asylum seeker is seen for the status determination interview. Often, the status interviews are conducted three to six months after an individual arrived in Nairobi. These delays are harmful to torture victims who are very much in need of immediate psychological support, and they contravene UNHCR's own recognition that "the personal, social and economic costs of failing to identify and intervene with [victims of extreme violence] are devastating."70

For example, a thirty-nine-year-old Ethiopian woman who had been a supporter of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)71 was detained and tortured in Ethiopia several times before she fled to Kenya. She told Human Rights Watch that the last time she had been tortured began with her arrest, "by the Moyale police on April 3, 1999." She continued:

They transferred me to Negele Civil Prison on May 7, 1999. I was released on March 3, 2000. During my time in prison I was raped by the guards repeatedly. I was also severely beaten. They would torture me by tying my breasts with strings. I had so many medical problems there and there was no treatment for me. I was coughing and spitting up blood every day. I had irregular menstruation and abdominal pains.72

She went to UNHCR on June 9, 2000 and was referred for psychotherapeutic counseling five months later, on October 12, 2000.

Jiksa B., a twenty-five-year-old Ethiopian man from Arsi Province in Ethiopia was arrested several times for being an OLF supporter. Jiksa arrived in Nairobi in June 2000 and had his status assessed by UNHCR and was referred to Kakuma camp on November 14, 2001. In a state of clear distress, he explained what had happened to him:

I was first arrested for ten months in 1992. Then I was arrested in Goba Civil Prison from February 9, 1997 until September 9, 1997. Then I was arrested in September 1998 and held until January 2000. During that time I had my feet and hands bound behind my back. I was also beaten with a board with nails in it and beaten on the soles of my feet. I was made to dig a pit and was told I would be buried alive there. They also boiled water and poured it on my groin and near my testicles.... Since that time I have lost my sexuality [become impotent].73

As of April 6, 2002 (when he was interviewed by a Human Rights Watch researcher) Jiksa had received no counseling or medical treatment.

Of close to twenty refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Nairobi who were victims of sexual violence or other forms of torture in their countries of origin, only one female Ethiopian refugee who had been raped repeatedly in prison in Ethiopia had been referred for counseling in a timely manner soon after her first visit to UNHCR.74

Failures to Assist Refugees in Nairobi

Refugees living in Nairobi are partly suffering from the poverty and violence that is afflicting many Kenyans. However, the government of Kenya, the international community, and UNHCR also bear responsibility for the living conditions of refugees in cities like Nairobi, particularly when those conditions put refugees' lives at risk. The government of Kenya denies any responsibility for refugees' living conditions in Nairobi - often citing the position that refugees in Kenya should be in camps. UNHCR's acquiescence in the government's camp confinement policy means that it offers only minimal assistance to a small portion of the total refugees living in Nairobi. Nevertheless, UNHCR has a heightened obligation to address the assistance needs of at-risk refugees living in Nairobi such as women, unaccompanied and separated children, and torture victims, including victims of sexual violence.75

While UNHCR's mandate is to protect refugees, the agency often argues that it is through the provision of assistance that it gets access to and is best able to perform its protection function for refugees. 76 Moreover, UNHCR's statute requires it to facilitate the coordination of relief efforts for refugees.77

51 For example, one international NGO (name withheld at NGO's request) in Nairobi provides material assistance (such as food and blankets) to more than 2,000 asylum seekers and needy refugees, but only particularly vulnerable individuals receive rent assistance. No other organization systematically assists refugees in large numbers with housing, although some church groups and individuals offer ad hoc housing assistance.

52 Human Rights Watch interview with social worker, Nairobi, Kenya, April 17, 2002.

53 Throughout this report, the exchange rate used was 78 Kenyan shillings to the dollar.

54 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 17, 2002.

55 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 17, 2002.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 17, 2002.

57 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 3, 2002.

58 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 3, 2002.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 4, 2002.

60 The names of some of the NGOs working with urban refugees in Kenya and Uganda are being kept confidential at their request.

61 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 4, 2002.

62 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 17, 2002.

63 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Riruta neighborhood, Nairobi, Kenya, April 3, 2002.

64 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR staff member, April 22, 2002.

65 Human Rights Watch correspondence with international NGO, July 26, 2002.

66 See discussion of appointment slips in text accompanying note 162, below.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 4, 2002.

68 See Goal Kenya internet publication, available at (last visited on August 16, 2002).

69 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 18, 2002.

70 See UNHCR, Training Module: Interviewing Applicants for Refugee Status, 1995, p. 89.

71 The OLF, an armed opposition group, has been involved in ongoing clashes with the ruling party EPRDF forces in Oromo-populated areas following a bid for Oromo independence. Government forces have been responsible for abuses against OLF members and Oromo civilians, including widespread torture.

72 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 6, 2002.

73 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 6, 2002.

74 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 22, 2002.

75 UNHCR recognizes this responsibility when it recommends that "particular attention must... be paid to identifying the[] needs [of women, adolescents, and children]." See also UNHCR, Guidelines on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence Against Refugees, 1995, p. 50 (noting that "it is essential that the victim receive counseling as early as possible.").

76 See Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme Forty Fifth Session Note on International Protection A/AC.96/830, September 7, 1994, paragraphs 14-18.

77 See Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, General Assembly Resolution 428(V), December 14, 1950.

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