Refugees in camps need agency to fight the pandemic

Higher education can give them the knowledge and skills needed to protect themselves against the coronavirus, say Paul O’Keffe and Djemila Carron

April 6, 2020
Syrian refugees at a camp in Turkey
Source: iStock

InZone – the University of Geneva’s Centre for Higher Education in Refugee Contexts – has been working with refugees in Kakuma (Kenya) and Azraq (Jordan) refugee camps for over a decade. As an academic centre with bases and refugee management teams in both camps, we have the privilege of working directly with refugees who have found themselves in extremely difficult conditions, yet somehow strive for better lives for themselves and their communities.

Our unique position encapsulates all that academics who work with refugees should hold dear: academic freedom, refugee-led management, co-creation of knowledge, the facilitation of empowerment, inclusivity and, above all, doing no harm.

However, with the impending threat of the coronavirus parked outside (for now) the one-way doors to these camps, our refugee colleagues and students confined to the camps are in grave danger.

The engine of InZone’s refugee management team model is the refugees themselves. We have built the much-needed trust with these communities to enable higher education to find appropriate ways to improve conditions in the camps and the lives of our colleagues stuck there, our students and their communities. Over the last five years we have worked with our students to create academic programmes that meet their needs and tried to give a voice to refugee communities whose opinions rarely get heard by those that make the decisions that shape their lives.

At the heart of InZone’s vision is aiding autonomy – to assist the refugees in finding their own solutions for their own problems. For example, in 2017 we started teaching basic medical training in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The following year we started this course in Kakuma and last year in Azraq.

Unfortunately, this approach is not always welcome in refugee camp contexts – whether by camp authorities or by the culture of dependence plaguing the international forced-migration management system. The facilitation of empowerment through higher education is sometimes viewed with scepticism and outright distrust. Critics largely see higher education as an elitist pursuit, that is not a priority for refugees.

With the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the world, refugees confined in barrack-like camps face danger unlike ever before. Faced with inadequate medical services and dire hygienic conditions, refugees can benefit from the facilitative power of higher education to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge they need to overcome these dangers. This is a priority more than ever before.

Furthermore, when the inevitable does happen and coronavirus breaks out in the camps, the inability – and illegality – of refugees to leave these camps to seek appropriate medical treatment reinforces our conviction that refugee camps are not the solution to manage forced migration. 

It is expected that in times of crises we question the reliability of our systems. The lack of care and dignity afforded to refugees during this time would undoubtedly show that the system is failing them.

One sobering fact that rarely gets addressed in the media, halls of power and even academia is the level of distrust refugees feel towards this system and its gatekeepers.

While there is no doubt that some parts of the humanitarian system can help, the reality for those confined and controlled behind international institutional fences is that it does not always help them. In a crisis like an outbreak of coronavirus, the level of distrust will have a tremendous impact on refugees’ safety, especially if the already inadequate camp services are stripped back further, which seems to be the case already.

Over the last few weeks in Geneva, we have, for the first time in our lives, experienced a bit of what confinement feels like. We face the same fears and uncertainty that our colleagues in Kakuma and Azraq do, however they do not have access to a first-class medical system, social safety nets and freedom of movement (which, for now, is still available to us).

We would like to take this opportunity to remind all the actors in refugee camps – academics included – that human rights standards, in particular the right to health, still apply to refugees, even though there might be some restrictions necessary to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

We also would like to remind everyone that the principle of non-discrimination fully applies in countries hosting refugees, preventing, for instance, discrimination on the basis of origin, nationality and legal status.

The humanitarian world likes to use the word “empowerment”, which by definition means having the resources to control one’s environment. Along with “resilience”, “sustainability” and “inclusiveness” it is chief among buzzwords used in green papers, strategy documents and academic articles.

But if these buzzwords are to have any meaning for refugees, what is needed most of all is “agency”. Refugees trapped in prison-like refugee camps need a space to exercise their own control over their own lives – especially now.

One example of how higher education is giving agency to refugees is the informational videos our medical students in Kakuma and Azraq have produced over the last few days. With our support they filmed four short videos in English, French, Arabic and Swahili describing potential symptoms of coronavirus infection and the steps that can be taken to slow its spread. They then sent these videos out via WhatsApp to their family, friends and communities in the hope that they can keep everyone there safe. This, to us, is real empowerment and shows what higher education can achieve in such contexts.

As the next few weeks unfold, we hope the international humanitarian system has refugees’ best interests at heart and does everything in its power to give those who can really make a positive change the agency that they deserve.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, they say, so we hope that by shedding light on the importance of empowering refugees we can all get through this trying time together.

Paul O’Keeffe is a post-doctoral researcher and Djemila Carron is a senior lecturer at InZone at the University of Geneva.

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