How humanitarians are responding to Nigeria’s conflict, humanitarian crises amid challenges- Kapaya
Ms Chansa Kapaya, Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nigeria speaks with the Humanitarian Post on the commemoration of the 2020 World Humanitarian Day celebrating #RealLifeHeroes.
Kapaya shares her life experience and speaks on the life of humanitarians in extraordinary times amid COVID-19 and attack on aid workers by non-state armed groups. She says the UNHCR also looks forward to the end of the protracted conflict in Nigeria’s North-east, as she calls for protection of humanitarian workers.
Aug. 19, 2020
The UNHCR has been intervening in Nigeria’s North East for over a decade now, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your interventions?
As humanitarian aid workers, we cannot stop, we have to do what we have to do. Yes there is the COVID-19 Pandemic which seems to have a life of its own if I can put it that way. And by the looks of it, until they find a vaccine or cure, it looks like it is going to be around for a while. But in the meantime, there are vulnerable people out there that need our help. For us, this is the time to stand in solidarity with these vulnerable people that need our desperate help. For UNHCR, we will stay and deliver, we will abide by the WHO and NCDC guidelines to ensure that with regards to COVID, our Staff protect themselves, prevent themselves from the COVID. And when we are meeting with persons of concerns or delivering aid, we try to also abide by the WHO/NCDC guidelines: the physical distancing, then mask, handwashing and we will within that context continue to provide the services that we need to provide because stopping will result in immeasurable, continued sufferings of the people. So, UNHCR is there to help as long as we are needed.
Has there been any confirmed case of COVID-19 in any of the camps, has any displaced person tested positive for COVID-19?
Actually, according to what I know, there have only been one case, I am not quite sure, but in one of the camps in the Northeast. Then another one case, these are confirmed cases, and I think it was in Benue State. But so far, we have not had any case that I am aware of and it is God’s grace I will say. Since my arrival, if you can recall, I came in early march and since then, I was unable to go to the operations because of the restrictions. The UN system has restrictions, the Federal and State governments also has restrictions. So, I was only able to go out now. I went to Ogoja, to Cross Rivers State and Benue State and recently, last week, I was in Maiduguri, the Northeast. Indeed, in the camps and settlements, we are trying our very best to sensitize, to bring to the attention of persons of concerns about how to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. In the IDPS camps that I visited in Maiduguri, Bakassi and stadium camps is quite a challenge because of the way in which the camp is really congested. The shelter are very close together.
Since your arrival to Nigeria March, what is your firsthand experience with IDPs and Refugees?
My visit to the sites where we have IDPs and refugees are two folds, on the one hand, it is almost a must, as soon as I get into any country, I have to visit the fields to see where my colleagues are based, where they are working, how they are living and what is going on. So that is important to me because those are the frontline workers, they are the people who are actually delivering the humanitarian assistance that we are talking about. Second of all, it is the people that we are here to serve so, what I like to do is walk within the community and sometimes I chat with the children, sometimes with the adults if they are willing. But I like to interact with the children because they are very curious, they look at you in a curious way and that way, you get a sense of temperature of how they are feeling. In Ogoja, I had a discussion with the refugee leaders where they shared with me their concerns, their challenges and issues and sometimes even suggestions as to how UNHCR can address some of their need. That is always very fulfilling because it helps sharpen your ideas and even what you are thinking or how you think you are even going to resolve a problem. When you talk to them, they themselves know how best their problems can be resolved. It is not it is not always that we could meet all the needs because sometimes we do not have the resources but we really need to spend time to talk with refugees.
How are the living conditions of the displaced persons?
Like I said earlier, the IDPs camps are congested, that is a fact and I think everyone are deeply aware of that. As for the refugee camps, of course they are not as congested because most of them, are living in settlements. But like I said, this was my first visit to the settlements and it was a very quick one at that, at because of shortage of time. What I noticed is that in the settlements, people are more or less okay, you can never say IDPs and refugees are comfortable because it is never really a comfortable life, they are making do with what they have. They are as usually resilient and they make do with whatever little they are given. Their living conditions sometimes are somehow comparable to their host communities. Sometimes to their host population because they are living within the same sort of space and environment.
Let me take you back to the front-liners, the real heroes, as this year’s celebration is themed. Recently there have been heightened killings of aid workers across the world. How is the UNHCR assuring its workers of their safety?
That is a very good question and the simple answer to that is, as UNHCR, we cannot ensure the safety of humanitarian workers, UN worker. The safety of all of us is the responsibility of the government. The Federal Government of Nigeria is responsible for the safety of all of you as Nigerians, and all of us as humanitarian workers. However, within the UN system we do have measures that are in place to be able to at least mitigate against harm to humanitarian workers but I won’t be able to go into those details. At the end, the physical protection of humanitarian workers, refugees and IDPs for that matter is really in the hands of the state government.
Are you getting the needed support and in what areas would you want support, not just in security areas but also sensitizations?
I think the state government, Federal government are very committed with respect to their responsibilities so I will urge the government authorities to continue being committed and continue to do whatever they can to protect aid workers and humanitarian aid workers. And I think the resources they have is available to do this. They should use to the full extent because the recent abduction and execution of the five aid workers was disturbing, it was grouse, it was a cowardly act and against all international legal frameworks, international laws. As you know, even in the Northeast, the military is there to try to protect the civilians, protect the humanitarian workers. So my call and urge is really upon the federal government, the state governments to continue to do what they are doing and I know they are trying their level best. It is a very challenging situation that we have to ensure the safety of humanitarian aid workers and the civilians that have paid the brunt of this senseless insurgency.
The interventions in the North East has been going on for a very long time and I am sure the UN does not plan to continue this forever. We are hoping for an end to the insurgency and displacement, how do you signal this coming to an end?
We hope that we are not going to be there forever and as the United Nations will prefer to go in and be as shortest time as possible and hope that crises will end. And of course if there are other crises around the world they move to that. For us in our hope for the long term, and in that regards, what we look forward to are solutions, solutions to these forced displacement situations. Solutions to even the insurgency that is going on in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel. Our hope is that through the discussions, and peace negotiations that sooner than later, the insurgency will stop so that people could go back to their homes, back to their areas of origins or their communities. Because unless the violence stops, unless the insurgency stops there is no end. People cannot go back to their communities, they cannot live in peace because without peace there is no end.
As a humanitarian, Can you share some of your experience with us, the successes, and challenges, and how you have coped as a woman who have to always leave family behind just to save lives?
I have been asked these questions several times and sometimes I do not even know how to frame it. I have dedicated most of my adult life to the UNHCR and to the humanitarian work. On a personal level it hasn’t been easy. When I say I have been with the UNHCR for the past 32 years it means I joined the UN system in my late 20s. Leaving home for the first time, living away from my family and friends for the first time was not easy, it was difficult and it continues to be difficult. You are a stranger each time you move location, each time you move countries. You are away from major event in your life; marriages and births, and sometimes even death. I have lost both my parents while working in this career of mine. Yes the toil is there, you make a lot of sacrifice to be able to continue to do the work. For me, what is most gratifying, especially in the context of the work that I do with UNHCR is when you see the assistance and the support you may have provided to people who may have arrived sometimes ill, sometimes very depressed and in a very bad shape and after a bit of time you start to see miles and people beginning to become human again. To me that is really gratifying and like I said, what attracts me the most especially when I go into a refugee camp or a resettlement are the children. As much as I love to see the children, it breaks my heart when I see them. One of the things I do is visit the schools and see how the children are faring. Sometimes the conditions are not so great because the available spaces in the classrooms are small. But the funny thing is when you go into these classrooms, the student stand up, they start singing and they start dancing and at the same time, I feel happy and at the same time I feel a sense of despair, a sense of sadness. I look at them and say it is really no fault of theirs. I sometimes compare my own son and ask how would he be in a situation like that? Sometimes we are so obsessed with numbers; the numbers of internally displaced, the numbers of refugees globally, but behind the numbers, we forget that they are real people, they are real human beings with their own emotions, with their own desire and screams and challenges.
In my recent assignment in Tanzania, I remember I was visiting one of the refugee camps and I saw one young Burundian refugee girl who was interpreting, I noticed she spoke English very well and I asked my colleagues where she learned her English because the crises was recent and she could not have learned that English so quickly even though she was going to school. And then she answered that she was a refugee in Zambia. That again struck me because I am from Zambia, so I wanted to find out more. I asked her what happened, “where were you in Zambia”, since she said she lived in Lusaka which is the capital city and the suburb where she lived with her and going to secondary school. She said when she finished her O levels, she travelled back to her home country to see her parents and to tell them she has finished. Her intention was to return and continue living with her aunt when the results were out. And then, the war broke out in her country, Burundi. She could not go back to Zambia and when the civil unrest became intense, her family tried to go to DRC, they felt insecure there, then they ran into Tanzania She said she was volunteering in the camp and was unable to proceed with her post-secondary education under the DAFI scholarship, the Albert Einstein Refugees Scholarship. And then I said you are a prompt candidate how did you do? And she said, I did well, I passed my O levels but I am not able to join because I cannot prove that I have finished school because I don’t have a certificate. That, is the real life of an average refugee. When things happen, you just get up and you go. I asked if she was really sure she was in Zambia and she finished school there and she said yes. -I said, give me the name of your aunt, the name of your school so I can see what to do. I contacted UNHCR in Zambia, I gave them the details of this girl and I said, try to find the aunt of this girl and see if we can try to locate the certificate of this young girl. True to form, we contacted the aunt and the school, and the school confirmed that she has being a student there and what they wanted was some kind of confirmation that the girl is allowing the aunt take her certificate on her behalf. We communicated that information and the certificate was released to the aunt who gave it to the UNHCR office in Lusaka and they sent it to me. You should have seen this girl’s happiness and joy when she got that certificate.
Such a small thing to me was a life changing situation for her because with that certificate she can now pursue further education and hopefully, it can open new doors for her even though she is in a refugee context. With education she can have a hope for herself and for her family.
This is a story I have `completely remained attached to. Again, as humanitarians you can be distant because of the way the work is, they are so many people, you probably won’t be able to target anybody. Because again, as our work is, we are meant to be impartial, to serve everybody regardless of their gender, ethnicity and so on. But for me, walking through the camps from time to time if you spend time with persons of concerns, with the children, they may be moments that you connect with persons of concerns and you realise that small gesture goes a long way.