Kakuma: The Invisible City

During my semester abroad in Canada in late 2017, I was invited to a film screening of the documentary film Kakuma: The Invisible City. The film screening of Kakuma took place at the Vancity Theatre and after the film screening there was a discussion panel that featured the filmmaker, UN delegates and academics, and a former Kakuma refugee. After attending the documentary screening I had to write a review of the film for my university’s Global Development department – here’s a little insight to what I learnt and thought of the film.


Kakuma is the name given to the site of the UNHCR refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement located in the North-Western region of Kenya. The Kakuma refugee camp was established in 1992 during the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” and the influx of Ethiopian and Somali refugees that followed during that year (UNHCR Kenya, 2017). Large groups of Ethiopians have been forced to migrate following the fall of the Ethiopian Government, and Somalia has experienced high insecurity and civil strife, which causes people from these regions to flee. After renewed conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013, Kakuma surpassed its capacity by over 58,000. UNHCR requested an allocation of additional land to expand the Kakuma Refugee Camp, and the Turkana County Government, at the request of the Central Government, allocated a site near the Kalobeyei Township, situated about 40km northwest of Kakuma, and measuring 15 square kilometres (UNHCR Kenya, 2017). Kakuma camp and the Kalobeyei settlement had a population of 185,298 registered refugees and asylum seekers as of 15/10/2017 (UNHCR Kenya, 2017).

The Film

Kakuma The Invisible City is a documentary film by Lieven Corthouts, who decided to live in Kakuma for more than 4 years and film his friends to unveil the true dynamics of a refugee camp. The film addresses how many of the new arrivals of refugees are children, many of whom are sent out of conflict zones by their parents in the hope that Kakuma will provide them with opportunities to rebuild their life. The film focuses on three youth in particular, eight year old Nyakong from South Sudan who begins school in Kakuma whilst waiting for her mother to return from South Sudan, and teenagers Claude and Khadijo who are forced to compete for international scholarships, find jobs, and build their own homes, or alternatively plan a dangerous journey across Africa into Europe. In a world filled with increasing xenophobia and inhumane political decision making, the film poses an important question; can camps and settlements like Kakuma really offer anyone a future?

I think the film itself was very successful in giving insight into what life is like for those living in refugee camps and settlements. I think that film, and other forms of visual art are very effective drivers to promote social and global change. While film and other forms of visual art itself may not enforce practical social change, it can be a valuable and often overlooked catalyst to generate change, since art changes people, and people change the world. I think that Kakuma The Invisible City is effective because it does 3 things. Firstly it raises awareness on the issues surrounding forced migration and refugee settlements in the East African region, and raises awareness on any social issue is the first step to get the public or policy makers to think about it and enact change. Another important aspect of driving social change is getting people to think about their own ideals, emotions, or opinions towards a particular issue, which I think most people who viewed the film would agree it did successfully. Thirdly, I think the film provided a way for people living in Kakuma to participate and share their story in a way where their story isn’t just used for entertainment purposes, but as a way to bring awareness to the public and educate them on the topic by providing them with an authentic insight into life in Kakuma.

One criticism that I have towards the film is that while it poses the all important question on whether camps and settlements like Kakuma can really offer anyone a future, I found myself feeling rather lost at the end of the film. With all of this information and insight that I had gained from the film, I was left asking more questions, particularly about what the possible solutions are to address the issues surrounding forced migration and refugee settlements in East Africa. Fortunately, members on the discussion panel answered many of the questions that I had.

Discussion Panel

The biggest question I was left asking after the screening was: in terms of providing people in settlements like Kakuma (particularly youth) prospects for a better future, should the focus be to increase their mobility and provide them with more opportunities to resettle overseas, should the focus be to develop settlements like Kakuma into more permanent cities with improved infrastructure, more opportunities for long term employment and education within the city, or should the focus be to address the root causes of conflict and drivers of forced migration within the Eastern African region?

After listening to the members of the discussion panel answer questions, I’ve come to understand the interconnected nature of the issues surrounding migration. There is no single solution for addressing the issues surrounding forced migration, because it is not a single sided issue. Forced migration lies at the intersection of all three pillars of the United Nations; human rights, peace and security, and development. The root causes of forced migration can be human rights violations, conflict and war, and poverty. The policies that many countries currently have in place to address forced migration often result in a violation of human rights, and successful migration can actually be a solution for global development and alternative to living in poverty.

A reoccurring theme that was also discussed amongst the discussion panel at the event was that it is just as important that individuals and groups acting at the grassroots level also see a shift in the way we perceive migrants within our society, and the need for us to act as global citizens. Global citizenship is an umbrella term that describes the “social, political, environmental, and economic actions of globally minded individuals and communities on a worldwide scale” (UN Academic Impact, 2017). This concept of global citizenship is also part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and particularly SDG 4, insuring inclusive and quality education for all which includes global citizenship in one of its targets. As global citizens, there is a strong need for us to come together and through advocacy and activism at the grassroots level, commit to working towards solutions that will treat migrants in vulnerable situations and provide opportunity for migrants to successfully integrate into our society, and let governments and policy makers know that as citizens we expect them to let migration, like other areas of international relations, be guided be a set of common principles we expect to see them adopt.

UN Academic Impact, (2017) Global Citizenship, United Nations https://academicimpact.un.org/content/global-citizenship

UNHCR KENYA, (2017) Kalobeyei Settlement, UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/ke/kalobeyei-settlement

UN REFUGEES & MIGRANTS (2017) New York Declaration http://refugeesmigrants.un.org/declaration

The invisible city [kakuma], (2017) Kakuma The Invisibale City http://theinvisiblecitykakuma.com/

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