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Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya (MrMatijaKovac CC BY-SA 3.0)


The United Nations High Commission for Refugees hosted the first ever TEDx event in a refugee camp in early June. Halima Aden, hijab-wearing Vogue supermodel, attended; it was the first time the 20-year-old had been back to Kakuma, northern Kenya, since she was resettled in the US as a nine-year-old. Four planes and eight flights delivered around 350 dignitaries and VIPs from around the world to participate in making refugees cool again. The one-day extravaganza, which is estimated to have cost close to $400,000, raised a range of issues questioning long-held assumptions in the humanitarian sphere.

As the paradigm shift hits, the UN is looking to change a policy that after 25 years is no longer sustainable. With increased domestic pressure in donor countries to justify spending, the focus has transformed from providing cradle-to-grave aid to empowering refugees to find solutions for themselves.

TEDx, the elite media organisation that posts aspirational online talks, showed refugees as agents of positive change and valuable members of society, not simply a drain on host country resources. 

At the same time the UNHCR is under fierce pressure to reduce its expenditure and is making millions of dollars of savings with staff being moved to where they are actually needed.

The UNHCR’s mandate is to protect refugees, safeguard their fundamental human rights and help to build a better future. But critics said the Kakuma event was a waste of money which could have been better spent on a new hospital or a school. Those in favour said that by raising the profile of the issue, it did incalculable good.

Former UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, now UN Secretary-General, is trying to reform a system with which he is intimately acquainted, but there doesn’t seem much reason to be positive. Refugees are big business, and subliminal pressure exists to keep the system going. That’s one reason refugees have been made into needy victims, who need supplies of tarpaulins, non-food items, sanitation, water and tents, all of which translates into money. If people are seen as capable of standing on their own feet, those contracts aren’t needed, and without victims, there’s no business. Why find a solution if it threatens livelihoods?

Spending power in Kakuma, whose regugees are mainly Christians from South Sudan, amounts to $56 million a year. The current notion that you can turn refugees into Einsteins and entrepreneurs is simply unrealistic, because only about 15 per cent have that kind of potential, while many of them will remain vulnerable.
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