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Tuesday, 31 August 2004

Australians shocked by refugee's conditions

Uniting Church President Elect, Rev. Gregor Henderson has seen refugee camps before. But he was profoundly shocked by what he saw in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

There are refugees from eight African nations in the camp but most are from Sudan.
Rev. Henderson led a small delegation from Christian World Service, the aid and development arm of the National Council of Churches in Australia, to find out more about the situation of Sudanese refugees in Africa.

We spent 24 hours in Kakuma. We slept in one of the refugee camp huts. Like the refugees we were without food for 24 hours.

“I’m going home with a pretty awful feeling,” Mr Henderson said just before we left Kenya.
“My overriding reaction is one of distress.
“I’m distressed at the circumstances that face these Sudanese people. They’re living in such dreadful circumstances in Kakuma.

“I’m distressed that it has gone on for so many years.
“And I’m distressed that we in Australia are not doing more for them, as churches and as a nation.”
As well as distress, Rev. Henderson feels admiration for the way in which the people of Kakuma seem to cope with their circumstances.

“We saw so many expressions of hope in God,” he said. “We saw so many acts of friendship with us, without any sense of resentment towards us, who have so much when they have so little.

“We even saw their ability to celebrate their culture and their Christian faith in the midst all this poverty, hardship and suffering and heartrending stories.

“In such uncertainty we saw people who seemed to be able to find hope from deep down.
“I’m distressed that people have been there eight, nine, 10 years - and a few even longer than that.
“They’ve had no useful employment in that time. They’ve lived grindingly on one meal a day. There’s a sense of the world passing them by and leaving them largely uncared for.”

Rev. Henderson left Kenya determined to do what he can to try to improve the conditions in Kakuma.
“We can’t just leave it there,” he said. “We can’t just tell their story and leave it at that. We have to do something more active - as a church and as a nation - to respond to their needs.”

Sudan’s future is uncertain. There is the tragedy of Darfur. A similar tragedy is looming in the east. And the peace talks between the north and the south have stalled yet again.
There could soon be fighting on three fronts between the Arab north and the Africans in the west, south and east.

Rev. Henderson said there is a great deal of uncertainty about the peace process between the Arab, Muslim north and the African, Christian south.
“We got such mixed messages about it,” he said. “The people from the church agencies seem to be much more optimistic than the people on the ground and the refugees themselves.
“If there is a peace agreement within the next few months, that will create a whole raft of new needs. And the people will be highly vulnerable as they seek to re-establish themselves in their own homelands with all the difficulties they will face there, not only in the initial few months but also in the months to come.”

Rev. Henderson said he is proud that the churches around the world are trying help these people.
“I’m sure that the suffering Sudanese would be even worse off if it weren’t for the churches,” he said.
“Their own churches are obviously doing a tremendous job in the camp, holding them together and seeking to provide what little support for them that they can.

“The wider church community, including the Australian churches through Christian World Service, is offering them some assistance and offering to walk with them.”
Rev. Henderson wants the Australian churches to look at how we can provide more help to refugees who have been approved for resettlement in Australia to get here more quickly.
Too many refugees get visas to Australian only to find that the Sudanese in Australia can’t afford to pay their air fares. So their hopes are dashed and they go back to refugee camps.
Rev. Henderson said Australian churches have been making statements that congregations would be willing to support asylum seekers to live in the community, rather than in detention centres, while their cases are dealt with.

“We should be able to help Sudanese refugees to get a new start in life,” he said.
“Could churches supply no-interest loans for those the Australian Government has accepted as genuine refugees so they can come sooner, rather than later, and not have to depend on the Sudanese community in Australia to muster the money for their fares?”
He also hoped Australia can generate some concern about the paucity of rations for the people in Kakuma.

“Apparently all they are receiving is three kilograms of maize, with a little salt and cooking oil, per person per fortnight, with occasional lentils thrown in,” he said.
“Surely the international community can do better than that. Surely they’re entitled to more than one small meal a day and a bit more nourishment for them and their children.”
Refugees asked the delegation to take up three points with the Australian Government. They would like Australia:

  • To increase the number of refugees.
  • To support education for refugees in Africa.
  • To be ready to help in the reconstruction of Southern Sudan when a comprehensive peace

agreement is eventually signed.

“There’s plenty for us to speak to the Government about - and there’s plenty we can consider as further assistance from the church,” he said.
Rev. Henderson said he was very glad that the delegation had been invited to share the refugees’ conditions for 24 hours.

“I’m pleased we accepted the invitation of the Presbyterian community to live with them for 24 hours as they have to live,” he said.

“Knowing that we were there for only a night and a day meant it was no great sacrifice on our part. But I’m please we made that act of solidarity. We probably gained in credibility because of that.
“Even that taste says to us that they have one very poor meal each day, and each of those meals is the same - what you could call maize porridge - day after day, year after year.

“Eating would be no pleasure. Your body must accommodate to it somewhat. You would go to bed hungry each night and wake up hungry every morning.”

The delegation slept in a mud hut with very little ventilation.
“We were sleeping only two to a room. They sleep eight, or 10, or even 15 to a room. I can’t imagine that being anything but unbearable, night after night.
“There’s a complete lack of privacy and the sanitation provisions are so primitive. So are the cooking facilities.

“And the heat - and we were at the cool time of the year!
“This small taste we had of life in Kakuma makes me admire the spirit of the people.
“They seem so uncomplaining about their lot. If I had to do it for three or four days in a row I’d be at my wit’s end.

“You wonder what it must do to your long term health. Many of them, of course, said they feel sick. That probably speaks of malnutrition and various infections.

“We weren’t given mosquito nets - and we were blessed that there weren’t many mosquitoes.”
Rev. Henderson said there is a high incidence of malaria and digestive infections. “The level of medical care is very basic,” he said.

“We saw people who had had broken limbs that had never been properly set. We met people who needed operations for bladder and other problems. They can’t have them because the facilities just aren’t there.

“So the taste of their life was depressing. It makes you marvel that they can cope with it.
“We heard that every week children die because of inadequate facilities and lack of nutrition.
“I’ve been in refugee camps in the Middle East and Sri Lanka. These are the worst I’ve seen in terms of provisions and facilities.

“There’s no way that people can grow anything for themselves with that climate and the lack of water.
“The welcome we were given, as members of the fellowship and family of Christ, was extraordinary. We weren’t bringing any solution for them.

“I’m pleased we were able to share their conditions, rather than go off at night to somewhere a little better than where they were sleeping.

“It was a solidarity visit, not a spectator visit.
“The grinding hopeless of it all is terrible. It really turns your heart over. It’s appalling. It shouldn’t be.”

  • The Rev. Gregor Henderson is chairperson of Christian World Service, the aid and development arm of the National Council of Churches in Australia. He is also national president-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia