Refugee paralegals

By Christian Musenga


Refugees in Kenya face multiple challenges. In addition to the long process of recognition or rejection of refugee status, these challenges include lack of access to documentation and services – including refugee registration processes, business and work permits, student pass, bank accounts, social security numbers, travel documentation and mobile communication. Refugees also experience difficulties relating to police harassment, a general lack of knowledge of refugee issues, negative and discriminatory attitudes from local populations and barriers to foreign qualifications recognition.

In order to address this, some refugees in Nairobi have been trained by the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Kituo Cha Sheria, supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Migration Agency (IOM), as paralegals to support fellow refugees. A paralegal is someone who has either a basic legal training or more extensive practical legal experience, who provides legal assistance to facilitate access to rights and justice. Their work is generally supervised by a lawyer, law office or any legal institution.

Refugee paralegals sensitise refugee groups and public authorities on refugee rights through forums, workshops, training and conferences and also contribute to the capacity building programme of authorities to appropriately handle refugee cases, including how they conduct, stop, arrest and detain forced migrants and on how refugee documents should be issued and verified. They also contribute to awareness-raising activities for government representatives to improve their knowledge of refugee issues.

Refugee paralegals also work to empower the refugee community by providing guidance on their rights and obligations, including how to react when stopped, arrested or detained and how to approach authorities on matters of documentation. They provide refugees and asylum seekers with information regarding their asylum application and their refugee status, offering advice on their cases, making referrals and following up on cases. They advocate for the release of arrested refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants at police stations, prisons and places of detention, and accompany refugees on visits to organisations and institutions to seek assistance on various social issues (for example, to police stations in order to report crimes).

As a lawyer, I have a legal background and therefore have an obligation to help my community, so I became a refugee paralegal. Refugee paralegals are able to undertake work that large international NGOs have difficulty with or do not undertake due to their budget limitations and the scope of their work. For example, I am able to intervene in refugee cases (especially arrest and harassment cases) at any time of the day or night, including on weekends and holidays; large organisations only intervene during their hours and days of work. We also advise, refer and follow up on cases, giving feedback to refugees, which means they do not have to pay the costs of transportation to these NGOs, whose offices are all far from where refugees live. Importantly, refugee paralegals are based where refugees live. We deal with refugees on a daily basis as the majority of us are also refugees and live as part of the refugee community. In the community where I live and work we have established a forum where refugees can share their own ideas on legal and livelihoods issues.

In the course of my work as a refugee paralegal I have assisted many refugees. One Congolese refugee, who was conducting business without a business permit, was arrested for being in Nairobi unlawfully. He had previously been refused a business permit by the local authorities because they felt he lacked adequate identification. I advocated for his release by proving that his registration papers (from both the government and UNHCR) were issued to him in Nairobi, thereby giving him the right to live there. Following his release I also assisted him to obtain a business permit so that he could continue to do business lawfully in Nairobi.

I also helped a Somali refugee who was living in Dadaab refugee camp by advocating on her behalf with the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) in Nairobi when she was dealing with logistically complex demands for paperwork during the process of preparing to join her mother, who had been resettled in the United States. My intervention on her behalf, which included accompanying her to the RAS office, helped to avoid a delay in the process.

There are still important steps that need to be taken to make life legally secure for refugees in Nairobi. Refugee paralegals are currently lobbying the Government of Kenya to apply all the provisions of the Refugee Act 2006 to ensure refugees receive full protection in Kenya. We must also advocate for the government to facilitate local integration, opening doors to make refugees feel welcomed and safe, since many cannot return to their countries and their chances of resettlement are low. One way of doing this would be by establishing a permanent awareness-raising programme for police and other public administration officers in order to build their capacity to handle refugee cases. Both refugees and government authorities must know refugees’ rights and have the power and knowledge to advocate for them. Refugee paralegals in Nairobi are working to make sure this happens.


A poem about the ability for European people with passports to cross a border with no trouble whatsoever, while people who seek refuge experience borders as an obstacle and is the cause for serious hardship. It was inspired by walking from Greece to Macedonia as a person from a foreign land.


cross lines without meaning

just one look

ahead without dreaming

that’s all it took


i get a pass

while others not so fast

we all foreigners to this land

to us all it is foreign, land


stressed they will tress

it’s such a mess around me

i am free because of what’s in my hand

they are trapped as it’s lost from their hands


walls put up, imaginary

fences and barbed wire

find a place for the dead to be buried

hopes crushed, barely living tired


borders taking shape

an unwelcoming sign

people following orders

media frenzy turns them blind


eyes opened to reality

difference between love and hate

accepting inhumane casualties

divided yet the same fate


all part of one kind or so I thought

your birth place identifies who you are

word association what we are taught

reached for non-existing stars


seek refuge in world you don’t know

not allowed to stay

get refused for what you can and cannot show

please go back the same way


while i freely travel

whole lives get unraveled

if only we would break down the borders

that we created to separate and keep order


by Jelle Wassenaar- Issues Without Borders member, former volunteer in a refugee camp


a Number, a Name

A poem from two different perspectives about refugees who are lost in the numbers, currently living in a camp where they are usually asked for their tent / isobox  number when on the receiving end of food, hygiene items and such. I’ve tried to paint the picture from a camp resident and a volunteer (who are wearing name tags).


a number, I have a name

reduced to ones and zero

because of where I came from

so much I lost in the stats

I am a number, I had a house

now I have a number

isolated in a box

boxed in between isos

so many strangers, in this place

for 12 months, I am going crazy

plucking my beard

lining up twice a day, used to be three

they recognise my face, do not ask my name

I am not myself, say the number

been doing this for ages

not much to do beside sleep and eat

a community that’s gated

changes made

how many adults, children & babies

how can they get it wrong

guess this one is new

frustrated but still say thank you


sit at a table, ask the number

daily routine, bring the key

not that important, part of our duty

food is not that good

still try to sell it to everyone

waste, too and so much, too less

our list a mess

organisations don’t share

people lie and take

faced with so many

we should recognise faces

more difficult than it sounds

fool me once, I get it

fool me twice, I should know better

sorry it was picked up

sorry no more juice, bad luck

a community yet not one

people the victims

we apologise when we see that look in their eyes

I know the number of a few, pick up together too

most know my name, can’t say the same

I smile, but feel like I’ve treated you inhumane



by Jelle Wassenaar- Issues Without Borders member, former volunteer in a refugee camp



A poem about the complicated world of helping people (as a volunteer) and how one can struggle with emotions as you enjoy your time, but also questioning whether you came with the right intentions and or if your actions do more harm than good. I also touch on the constant depression (trauma) and hopelessness that is present underneath the surface for the people you are working with, even if they seem content or happy.


One of the best times of my life

and the worst of theirs

the time not in their possession even

lost in the wind that blew

turned everything upside down

they smiled while I shed tears

orange vests in numbers

some sought that thrill

an adventure or a trip

how lucky we are

just purchase your wings

ability to fly

identity unknown

fill in some papers to prove you are alive

do they not exist?

behind the label there is nothing of the sort

came along for the ride

said goodbye, but not really

stuck between worlds

I do not understand

stuck between words

nothing I can say

yet there we all are

speaking a language we know

is it enough?

the future tells a story of the past

good intentions do not predict

a positive outcome for you perhaps

who did you come here for? photographs

you go home richer questioning why

there is power in gratitude

some of the best times of whose lives

mine, ours, yours, theirs,

some of the worst

or is it? selfishly partly

mind yourself

happiness in misery

depression in laughter

there are so many sides

yin yang plus minus

try to keep a balance

life, the best or the worst

still undecided


By Jelle Wassenaar, Issues Without Borders Members, volunteer in a refugee camp


A poem I wrote while in Greece about the trip people make from Turkey via Farmakonisi – a military island – to Leros.


Black sea, black ocean

mind racing, wheels in motion

a screeching voice of the blowing wind

it’s loud and scary

beginning till the end


darkness surrounds me

am I blind, I cannot see

feel the drops of rain

so cold together

sharing the pain


the uncertainty, the fear

what is coming

mind numbing

it will all disappear


the cold is now wet

the screams coming from man

are we there yet

no answer on demand


survive, swim

looking at others

the outlook is bleak

alive, but grim


stumble upon rocks

found a treasure

what happens next

beyond our measure


flashlights, barks

code words cannot be cracked

a shot, light sparks

we all move back


women, children

saw them before

where are they now

see them no more?


rest on spikes

but feel numb

so cold, waiting

twisting my thumbs


salt water for days, drinking

time passing by pray, thinking

another boat crosses, sinking

chances of survival, shrinking


a sudden order after waiting

get on the big ship

where are we going, it’s dark

another scary long trip


Finally reach land

greeted by man

a new beginning

where does it end?


by Jelle Wassenaar- Issues Without Borders member, former volunteer in a refugee camp

Life in the jungle

A poem about life in Calais and how it must’ve felt like before it got dismantled earlier this year and people were transferred to camps / centres in France.


A point near the sea

not where oceans but two countries meet

thousands stranded

human beings, they are just like us

politics inter fear, abandoned thus


where to go? this place is new

a jungle created right out of the blue

are we monkeys, trapped in a zoo?


I don’t see any forest around

so many people in tents on the ground

everybody’s up and have created a small town

try to stay sane as we are EU bound


kitchens, book clubs, our own economy

from Africa to Asia to the Middle-East

we have to survive together same ancestry


sure there’s some squabbles and fights

but we all under the same roof come midnight

there’s very little hope but we still have the light


darkness rules when nobody cares

we just trying to create a better life ain’t fair

maybe big expectations, but for this you cannot prepare

so close to my family, this I cannot bear


years of oppression, war and poverty in a state

I was born in, did not choose, but chose to escape

Did I have a choice, silenced when raising my voice

can you imagine it, can you relate?


go to Europe everyone said

no option to stay here, where you will end up dead

that’s what kept me going even in a sea of red

but this hole is what I found instead


there is water but it’s not running properly

an open sewer so you can just pee

showers forget about it

feces all around, inhumane basically


in amidst all of this, children get lost

yet people in power worry about costs

police arrives when it burns but will they learn

we only try to get warm coming frost


some even attack us, where is the protection

luckily we have volunteers who show affection

help us so much, there’s an instant connection

we are lost but we get some direction


after so much waiting you start to explore alternatives

cannot just stay here, something’s gotta give

should I get on the lorry or stay positive


many have tried but came back

some were less fortunate, lost track

how can we stay sane when we supposed to crack?


every now and then the media comes impressed

and while most carry on, some protest

it’s like talking to a wall, a fence at best

a life ended but the loss of revenue makes the press


together we made it work somehow

through all the grief, we laugh and dance now

because we are in a centre and made it out


where to go? we have to get on a bus

many are left behind, it’s created a fuss

sadly caught in between, staying a must


the jungle is still there, you see

we are stranded where two countries meet

trying to get to the UK

but we aren’t seen as equals unfortunately

politics interfered, stay in France, me?


by Jelle Wassenaar- Issues Without Borders member, former volunteer in a refugee camp