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Anxiety grows over suicides at refugee camps

19 September 2013, 17:10

Garissa - Abdi Moulid, a refugee in Kenya's Hagadera refugee camp says he is still mourning the death of his friend who committed suicide on September 10 for failing to be considered for resettlement to a third country.

Moulid, who identified the deceased as Aden Hussein, 34, from Ethiopia, said he committed suicide on June 9 in Ifo camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee settlement in northeast Kenya.

"We had applied together for resettlement. While I am waiting to be resettled in the U.S., Hussein was not successful," the 35 year-old told Xinhua.

Together they made it a point of daily visiting the local notice boards where the list of successful applicants for resettlement to third country is displayed.

He said they were both certain that their application for resettlement will be successful.

"Gathering around notice boards at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices to check whether applications for resettlements or scholarship have gone through is a daily ritual," said Moulid.

Those who are short-listed for interviews are normally elated since it is virtually guaranteed that they will be resettled to Europe or America, he said.

Unsuccessful candidates are left devastated, he said, adding that some of those who fail to make the cuts are often stressed, drown in drugs or commit suicide in the camps.

Abdi Mohamed, a 39-year-old refugee in Hagadera camp, told Xinhua that his brother Ahmed committed suicide in December 2012 after several of his applications for resettlement failed to materialize.

"He was so much obsessed with life in Europe because of the success stories that are regaled in the camps," Mohamed told Xinhua.

"After unsuccessful applications, he became withdrawn. On previous occasions he had confided in me that life had lost meaning, but I kept encouraging him that it is not the end of everything," he said.

Hajir Abdi, 33, who has qualified to be resettled in the U.S., said that the thoughts of suicide crossed his mind occasionally when his previous applications took long to be considered.

He said what helped him is being near people anytime. "The thoughts are strong when you are alone or when you drift away from a group talk," he told Xinhua.

Besides failing to secure resettlement, life in the teeming camps has other challenges that have led refugees committing suicide, he said.

Efforts to get official statistics on the number of suicide cases in the local refugee camps were unsuccessful as officials from the International Organisation for Immigration did not respond to interview questions.

Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for the UNHCR office in Nairobi was also not available for comment.

However, Dadaab District Officer, Bernard ole Kipury, told Xinhua that the causes of some of the suicides in the camps are not established.

"The refugee community are discreet and even when glaring suicides are committed the family members insist it to be treated as normal death," he told Xinhua.

"Most of the victims are buried even before the authorities are notified. We get to hear of the reports long after the burial has been done when there is nothing much that can be done," he said.

Edward Mutungi, a psychology lecturer at Daystar University in Nairobi, said he hopes that refugee agencies incorporate counseling in their programs to help the refugees deal with emotions in the camps.

"When the refugees arrive and during the stay in the camps they should be assured that everything will be fine and given a sense of hope," he told Xinhua.

"Everyone, including the refugees, wants a better life. A refugee who is constantly mulling over the war back home and the future may lead to negative effects on the body and mind. The counseling can be done in groups or on individual basis," he said.

Some of the refugees ran stable lives and businesses in their homeland, but on arriving at the camps their lives change to squatting in squalid conditions, he said.

The refugees should also be prepared for bad news and so that when it happens they are able to absorb and forge ahead.

In addition, the refugees can be kept busy in the camps by engaging them in economic activities.

The refugees say the most common cause of suicide thoughts is failure to secure chances to be moved to Europe or America by the UNHCR.

To tackle the suicide tendencies, the refugees have devised their own way to curb the incidents, said Ali Hassan, a 35-year- old Somali refugee in Ifo camp.

He said the refugees have established several social joints in the camps nicknamed "stress corners," where the disillusioned converge and pour their frustrations out.

The stressed can meet from dawn to dusk discuss job opportunities in camps, scholarship, politics in Somalia, resettlement, marital breakdown and bereavements, he said.

"In the stress corners, one is allowed to shout, mutter, groan, curse, seethe, writhe, swear and cry. We console and counsel each other," he told Xinhua.

"In the end, one leaves this place with the feeling that he has off-loaded some baggage in them," he added.

The UN refugee agency said more than 130 individuals have been submitted for resettlement to resettlement countries since January. The resettlement countries make the final decisions whether to accept the cases.

UNHCR and IOM have been vetting the cases which have been selected to travel to U.S. for resettlement.

The East African nation is also hosting nearly half a million refugees from Somalia and has delayed their repatriation until the security situation in the country improves further.

- Xinhua

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