The never-ending refugee camp

A look into the largest refugee camp in the world.
Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell visits the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, 16 July 2011.

By now, most people have heard of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which houses tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the war at home. There is, however, a refugee settlement in the world that is even bigger, and more a city than a camp. Its population size resembles that of Bilbao and Nice in Europe, and of Milwaukee and Albuquerque in the USA. It is the Dadaab refugee settlement, and it is not only the biggest refugee camp in the world, it is also one of the oldest, established between 1991 and 1992. This article serves as an introduction to the origins and current developments of Dadaab.

Ideally, refugee camps should not exist for longer than necessary, i.e. only until the individuals living there can safely return to their home country or resettle to a new, permanent home in their host country or abroad.

This has not been the case with Dadaab, in Northern Kenya. Although it is often referred to as ‘Dadaab refugee camp’, it is actually made up of five camps that together form the Dadaab community in Garissa County, close to the Kenyan-Somali border. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of December 2015, there are now more than 330,000 exclusively Somali refugees living and registered in Hagadera, Dagahaley, Ifo, Ifo 2 and Kambioos refugee camps (though some sites claim it is closer to 500,000 people). Originally, it was created to house only up to 160,000 refugees.

When the Somali government collapsed in 1991 following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre, thousands of individuals fled the violence and chaos that ensued, and sought refuge across the Kenyan border. Many of them never left (as it was/is difficult to go back to Somalia or to live in Kenya), but got married and started families in the camps, resulting in there being a generation of Dadaab-born Somali refugees who are now having children themselves.

A new influx of Somalis occurred in 2011 as a result of drought, famine and continuous insecurity in Somalia. In that year, about 1,400 new refugees arrived in Dadaab every day.

Most needs are covered only on a basic level, which is mostly a result of the sheer number of people living in Dadaab, the prolonged existence of the settlement and the shift of international attention to more recent crises. Food, for example, has always been provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners. The food that is given to the refugees is typically dry food (dry rations), and lacks the additional and much needed nutritional value of fresh vegetables and fruit.

This reliance on food aid is connected to the Kenyan government’s restrictions on movement of the refugees, as well as the harsh climate of the region where the camps are located. In their 2014 joint assessment report the UNHCR and WFP cited this “semi-arid and high food insecure region” as one of the obstacles to the inhabitants’ livelihoods and coping mechanisms. This is made worse by “illegal encroachments and settlements, logging and overgrazing, and charcoal burning, which has exerted pressure on the environment leading to environmental degradation.”

Education is another important aspect of the settlement, which is again provided by the UN (UNHCR) and a partner (CARE) to ensure as many children as possible continue their schooling or receive education for the first time. In 2011 there were 19 primary schools and 6 secondary schools in the five camps, although enrolment rates were still low (43,000 children turned up, of about 156,000 school-aged children). In addition to these “basic” schools, there are also private and religious schools, adult literacy centres and four vocational training centres for refugee and local youth.

What makes the situation of those living in Dadaab so difficult and rather hopeless is the fact that they are not allowed to leave the camp to live elsewhere in Kenya (unless they are being officially resettled locally, which doesn’t happen very often), as mentioned above. This makes it impossible for them to have a normal life, buy a house, find a job and just plainly start a new chapter in their lives. The only options they have is staying in Dadaab indefinitely or go back to Somalia, which some actually do.

Life in Mogadishu might be more dangerous, but they are at least able to move around and are out of a prison-like environment. Some are lucky enough to be resettled abroad, with the main countries being the US, Canada, Australia, as well as Norway, Sweden and the UK in Europe (though only 2,170 refugees were submitted for resettlement in 2012).

In spite of all the difficulties and hardships there are still signs of normal life, art and innovation in the settlement. The camp has its own newspaper, markets, basketball courts, gym and bicycle garage. In early 2015 13 schools or vocational training centres became “Instant Network Schools” – connected to the internet and equipped with tablets and interactive whiteboards powered by solar energy and sponsored by the Vodafone Foundation and Huawei. The tablets enable the students and adults to learn (better and more), follow directions and carry out research. They open up a whole new world for them, allows them to connect with relatives outside the settlement and “travel” anywhere. The 235 tablets are of course not enough for everyone in Dadaab, but they are a beginning and a new incentive for children to enrol in school.

The multi-media site Dadaab Stories provides an insight into life at the settlement, and gives many individuals a platform to introduce themselves and talk about their situation in Dadaab. The website is a project of FilmAid International, an organisation which uses the power of film and media in their missions.

The resilience of the thousands of individuals living in Dadaab is striking but one can only hope that the refugee-city will not celebrate its 25th “birthday” next year.

Human Rights
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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