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How to run a refugee camp

In the past three weeks, a small society has emerged in the garden of Johannesburg’s Jeppe police station where about 1 400 refugees are living. And, as in a normal society, crime has also blossomed. A team of ”peace marshals” has been appointed to try to bring law and order to the camp community.

It’s 10am and about 15 refugees are having a meeting inside the police station. Their reflective vests bear the words ”Peace marshal”. These representatives of the foreign nationals deal with issues such as stolen blankets, lost cellphones, cleaning the toilets and keeping people informed.

While volunteers, churches and the South African Red Cross Society are doing a great job of caring for the foreign nationals, the refugees themselves often don’t have a real say. That’s why Jonathan Timm, as a communications specialist at the Mvula Trust, a water and sanitation NGO, decided to set up a task force run by foreign nationals.

Timm says he witnessed the xenophobic violence in his own part of town, in nearby Troyeville, and felt that he needed to act. He started delivering milk, toilet paper and nappies to the displaced foreigners and became progressively more involved in the organisation at the refugee camp.

”It’s all about democracy, representing the people,” he says about the team of peace marshals. ”When you got 1 400 people in one place, there is rubbish, people pissing and shitting. A public health crisis will easily break out. People started pointing fingers at each other. Everybody thinks the other will clean the place, but in the meantime nothing happens.”

Timm decided to create a hygiene team — a group of foreign nationals dressed in orange overalls and white boots who now clean the camp toilets every day — as well as a team of peace marshals comprising 18 refugee representatives, one for each of the 18 home countries of the refugees at the police station.

From Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Ethiopia to Gabon, every country has its own spokesperson to deal with the daily issues of life in a refugee camp — and these are not simple issues. Stolen blankets and mattresses, the illegal use of electricity, people who jump the queues when food is delivered: everything is discussed at the marshals’ meetings.

Sudan’s representative reports that there is someone in the camp who has a phone charger and is asking money to recharge cellphones. The Ethiopian representative says some of his people have lost their cellphones and some mattresses have been stolen. Another report mentions refugees who steal blankets and try to sell it on the street at the back of the police station.

Peace marshal Tesfamicheal Tedla, the representative of Ethiopia, believes that the marshals have an important role to play. ”Everyone is suffering, so you must organise things,” he says. ”Some people are stronger than others. Every leader gets blankets and mattresses according to the number of refugees of your country; I make sure that everyone gets one.

”Two people of my country were stealing mattresses. They wanted to sell them at the back. I caught them. During our meeting we decided not to punish them, to give them a second chance. But next time they must go to jail.”

The marshals are not only there to bring law and order; they also listen.

Zemenay Wondimu fled her house together with her mother, sister and brother, all of whom are now staying at the police station. As a female marshal, she often speaks to the women in the camp. ”Women come to talk to me. They are worried about their children. They find it difficult to talk about their feelings. I also find it difficult, but you have to talk about things.”

The marshals sit in on meetings with police officials. Franssen Kitenge, the representative of Congo, says: ”People are asking me what is going to happen. They want to know what their future is. I tell them what was discussed in the meetings with the police.”

However, the future of the refugees at Jeppe remains uncertain. Says Kitenge: ”I am telling my people to be patient, that things will be all right, that God always has a plan for them.”

During lunchtime, the marshals try to organise the long queues of people waiting for their food.

While he tries to keep order in the queues, marshal Jean Lele, the representative of Cameroon, explains his job: ”Some people are jumping the queue, or they go for food twice or three times, while others get nothing. We must help them. Everyone should get the same … We change their mentality. People must not only think about themselves.”

Being a role model is not easy. Refugee Dennis Moyo sits nearby, watching the line of hungry people. He questions the efficiency of the marshals, pointing to a man who is sitting on a bunch of blankets. ”That man is very sick, he doesn’t have a mattress,” he says. ”I went to one of the marshals. That was three days ago, but they didn’t do anything.”

He continues: ”Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But there is corruption within the group [of peace marshals].”

The issue of corruption also surfaces during a marshals’ meeting where Gabon’s representative is accused of falsely representing his country. A discussion ensues, with the representative quizzed on his home country: What is the capital city of Gabon? What is the currency? What is the biggest supermarket chain?

Tedla, of Ethiopia, insists the representative of Gabon is lying — according to him, he is not the only one. ”The representative of Nigeria … I think he is from Congo. I hear it from his accent. He just wants to have more blankets for his own community.”

The marshals decide to gather all the Gabonese refugees and discuss the issue at a future gathering.

At the end of the meeting, Timm has an important message for the marshals.

”If people want to make money, do it outside. This is a camp,” he says to loud applause.

Running a refugee camp is far from easy.

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Imke Van Hoorn
Guest Author

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