On Mondays and Tuesdays, Jamie and I go to the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) to help interview refugees at the organization’s legal aid clinic. Eventually we’re supposed to be conducting interviews ourselves, but for now we’re just observing and trying to learn as much as possible. The whole process brings up so many ethical questions, it makes my head hurt.
Since I’ve been studying humanitarian crises in school, I’ve read a lot about the relationships that form between aid workers and refugees. And in fact, it’s a little bit eerie to see how accurately scholars have been able to characterize some of these issues. What I learned about last semester is happening right in front of my eyes. I’m seeing that there is indeed a complete lack of trust on both sides. The aid workers don’t trust the refugees to be telling the truth, and the refugees don’t trust the aid workers because they see them as insensitive. This past semester, I wrote a paper on Sudanese refugees in Cairo. In it, I touched on the frustrations felt by the Sudanese refugees towards the Egyptian staff at UNHCR. Though RCK is not UNHCR, the employees there seem to play a hauntingly similar role. I wrote:
As Jane Kani Edward notes, “The suspicion and mistrust between [Sudanese] refugees and UNHCR caseworkers stems from the very process of refugee status determination.” Refugees often feel as though their life histories are either ignored or not taken seriously. One southern Sudanese noted that his UNHCR interviewer “spent more time doing her hair than asking me questions.” Another refugee recalls,
I remember my mother telling us she felt she was made to beg for something—for anything—inside the UNHCR office. I’ll always feel angry when I remember the way my mother was treated inside those offices and I’ll always resent the officer who showed her no respect.”
Sometimes it does indeed seem that the RCK staff members are apathetic towards the narratives of the Ethiopian and Somali refugees. But, as our supervisor explained to us, it is important to try to remain as objective as possible. And I’m almost ashamed to say that I think she must be right. You can’t get emotional about every case that comes in unless you want to burn out in a week. I’ve only been there three days and I’m exhausted.
Though RCK is not in charge of refugee status determination, they do decide whether or not a case is serious enough to warrant legal representation. For example, if the physical security of an individual seems to be in jeopardy, RCK will help the refugee apply for resettlement to a third country (like the US, or Australia). Thus the refugee comes to RCK knowing that his chances of resettlement increase if he portrays his case as seriously dire. Consequently and perhaps expectedly, this means that some refugees try to take advantage of the system by making up false grievances.
Basically, I have found myself in a very odd situation. I’ve read about the lack of trust on both sides… and now I’m to become part of that system? Even if the refugee does exaggerate his condition, the fact remains that he’s still fled his country and is living in poverty with very little resources and no support system. And my gut instinct is of course to be sympathetic. And when some of the women come in and tell you’re their stories, you really just feel like crying. But as the volunteers at RCK say, “you really can’t believe everything they tell you” and “you can’t be emotional with them, or they’ll expect you’ll be able to help them.” So is it more unethical to act unsympathetic or to express sympathy (but in doing so, raise false hope and allow the individual to feel even more frustrated when he realizes you can do nothing to help)?
Last Tuesday, we listened to five women tell their stories… most of them reported cases of rape, and said they had no place to live and not enough food to eat. And we turned all of them away. RCK cannot give social assistance. It can refer the refugees to an organization like JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services)… but then our boss told us that JRS is running out of funding and can rarely do anything to help either. Wonderful.
RCK is a strange place. Metaphorically, it’s much like the entrance to the afterlife. The yard is full of people with blank looks on their faces. They sit or stand in clusters as they wait for their names to be called. There’s a secretary sitting at a desk right inside the front door, and if you’re lucky enough to be on her list, you get ushered past her down a hallway and into an interview room where you’re expected to tell your life story. Then, the interviewer decides what to do with you. If she thinks RCK can help, she refers your case to someone more powerful upstairs. If she decides RCK can’t help, you’re turned back out onto the street and remain in limbo indefinitely.