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Kenya’s Changes in Refugee Schools Lead to Boycotts

KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—Thousands of refugee students here have been boycotting their classes to protest against the Kenyan government’s move to replace refugee teachers with state-registered native educators.

“We are not willing to attend classes until our concerns are addressed,” said Abdi Farah, 16, a student at Horseed Primary School who spoke on behalf of his classmates. “We want our own [people] to run the schools. They understand our plight as refugees because they have been refugees themselves.”

This camp and the nearby Kalobeyei refugee settlement, both overseen by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, are located in northwestern Kenya and together are considered one of the largest refugee facilities in the world. The complex currently has 24 primary schools and at least six secondary schools. The facility is home to more than 185,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the refugee agency. Around 86,000 students attend schools in the camp or in other Kenyan secondary schools nearby.

The United Nations funds the schools, and the Lutheran World Federation helps operate them. But Kenya’s Ministry of Education considers them public schools that require educators licensed through the country’s Teachers Service Commission. This year, Kenyan officials determined it was time to install licensed teachers in the schools.

Children at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya (Photo: Tonny Onyulo).

The move sparked protests within the camp. Some parents worried that the state-registered teachers would not understand how to teach refugees, and that the move was a first step toward charging school fees.

“As parents, we are not going to allow outsiders to run our schools,” said Abdullahi Mohamed, a parent who has three children in Bhar-El-Naam Girls Primary School. “They don’t know what happens in the camps and most of them will come with new rules, forgetting that they are managing refugees.”

Yvonne Ndege, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Kenya, said officials had held several sessions with refugee leaders to try to explain the rationale for the state-ordered changes.

“We will continue to engage the community,” she said in a prepared statement, “as this decision cannot be rescinded since it’s a statutory requirement which UNHCR and LWF have to comply with.”

She acknowledged that the changes had affected attendance since the schools reopened earlier this year. But most schools were in session, she said, and only a few were experiencing a low turnout.

Refugees are also worried that the government might impose fees for attending the primary schools, which most of them cannot afford.

Earlier this year, several secondary schools at the camp were forced to close down after the education authorities announced students would need to pay a school fee of around $10 per term. Students walked out of classes, saying they could not afford the fees.

“These new teachers will start charging fees and we will advise our children to stay home because we can’t afford all that money,” said Mohamed. “We are not used to paying fees because we are refugees. These schools are run by the community and UNHCR, and we are not supposed to pay anything.”

Officials in the primary schools said they might need to charge fees because donor funding was running short and they needed cash.

But the refugee agency spokeswoman said the schools would not charge fees.

“UNHCR has learnt of malicious rumors being spread in the refugee community that once registered head teachers are deployed, refugee children will be required to pay $10 annually as a school levy,” said Ndege. “Given that primary education is free and compulsory, UNHCR has explained on several occasions to refugees that no fees will be levied.”

Refugee students and parents are still reluctant, however, to allow non-refugee teachers to run and manage the schools within the camp.

“The government has a bad intention to bring these teachers to the camp,” said Mohamed. “They want to introduce fees and mismanage our schools. We are not going to allow this to happen here.”

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