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Fighting for resources on Kenya-Sudan border

April 17, 2017

Kakuma was once a sleepy, remote region of Kenya. Now it is home to the country's second-largest refugee camp. There appears to be no end in sight to the stream of people escaping war-torn South Sudan.

Kampf ums Wasser der Turkana
Image: DW/S.Petersmann

The fire crackled all night long. Alice Maraka and her family had covered large distances on foot to comb the drought-stricken area for wood they could make into charcoal. When the coal is cool enough to handle, Alice heads to the United Nations refugee camp in Kakuma, where she trades it for food. A bowl of coal fetches two portions of millet or beans.

"Trading with refugees is all we have left," she said. "But it is fewer and farther in between. The refugees are making their own coals now, leaving us with nothing."

Turkana-Hirtin Alice Maraka produziert Holzkohle
Alice Maraka, a member of the Turkana people, searches for wood to make charcoalImage: DW/S.Petersmann

Vicious circle

Alice is a member of the million-strong Turkana people native to the region in western Kenya by the same name. The Kakuma refugee camp is there, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the border with South Sudan. A brutal civil war is forcing ever more people to the area, bringing refugees and the native population into contact - and conflict - with each other.

The Turkana are a largely nomadic group who raise animals for meat, milk and clothing. Ongoing drought has killed many of the livestock, threatening the Turkana livelihood in the underdeveloped region. Many turn to making coal from local wood, devastating the trees and shrubs that help store water, thus exacerbating the drought.

Das Vieh stirbt - Dürre in der Turkana im Norden Kenias
The drought in Kenya's Turkana region has been devastating for livestockImage: DW/S.Petersmann

Alice's family has lost most of its animals in recent weeks. They've built a shelter not far from the UN-sponsored refugee camp, hoping to receive food and water.

"We don't know much about the refugees," Alice said. "But we feel they are taking our land from us and polluting our water."

Flüchtlinge aus dem Südsudan in der Turkana im Norden Kenias
South Sudanese refugees in northern Kenya's Turkana regionImage: DW/S.Petersmann

Limited resources in divided worlds

The UN and refugee relief organizations provide for the 180,000 refugees living in the Kakuma camp. The Kenyan government is responsible for the indigenous population. The two groups live separately, crossing paths at water sources and markets.

"We can't order the refugees back home, but it's a problem," Alice said. "Our government has to help. The refugees are harmful to us. They steal what animals we have left. Then they threaten us when we demand them back."

Turkana-Hirtin Alice Maraka mit ihrer Familie vor ihrer Hütte
Living alongside the refugees has been difficult for Alice Maraka and her familyImage: DW/S.Petersmann

Gossip in the camp

Drought makes matters worse. The World Food Program (WFP) has had to halve provisions due to lack of resources. The camp is above capacity, and there is little to do there but wait. The refugees have negative feelings about the Turkana similar the feelings the Turkana have about them. Newly arrived Sudanese refugees complain the locals are aggressive and rob them. Rumors spread quickly.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is trying to bolster relations between the two groups. A new settlement in nearby Kalobeyei is meant to be home to both Sudanese refugees and Turkana locals, as well as to relieve the strain on the Kakuma camp.

"The focus is independence and personal responsibility," said Honorine Sommet-Lange, head of the UNHCR's Kakuma operations, . "We want to avoid dependency on the international community, in part due to dwindling funding."

Creating a model community that promotes integration is not easy in drought conditions. Local Turkana in search of water block UNHCR vehicles heading to the new settlement, Sommet-Lange said.

Honorine Sommet-Lange, Leiterin UNHCR in Kakuma
Honorine Sommet-Lange is the UNHCR's director in KakumaImage: DW/S.Petersmann

A refugee camp since 1992 still growing

As of March, 30,000 people call the new settlement in Kalobeyei home. Most of the refugees live in hastily constructed shelters. Demand for more housing is growing, with up to 2,000 refugees coming across the border from South Sudan every month.

The financial support is insufficient. Only about 20 percent of the $226 million (213 million euros) requested for the region has been committed, Sommet-Lange said.

Refugee officials want to avoid creating camps now that will become ghost towns later, whenever the refugees are able to return home. There is no end in sight to the civil war raging north of the border. The Kakuma camp has existed since 1992 and has grown as drought conditions have worsened. Starvation remains a serious threat to the Turkana.