The world’s largest refugee camp: Somalis in Dadaab occupy the grey spaces of international law
by Ben Rawlence
Noor Tawane is approaching 30. He is of average height and medium build and beginning to thicken around the middle. Seven children and several businesses have taken their toll: lately, a patch of grey hair has appeared on the very top of his black crown. Mr Tawane is tired. His eyes that twinkle when he is excited are mostly dull these days.
For 23 of his 29 years, Mr Tawane has lived in Hagadera camp, one of the five that make up the complex of refugee camps around the north-eastern Kenyan border town of Dadaab. It sprawls in the middle of an arid red desert, 113km from his homeland of Somalia. Since his father fled in 1992 carrying him on his back, Mr Tawane, his ageing parents and his extended family have lived every day on the verge of going back to Somalia. They thought that each creak and shift in the war might be the break that would allow them to return. They never expected to grow old and die in Kenya, but that possibility advances daily.
In the beginning Mr Tawane’s father refused to build a permanent house. In- stead, he opted for an aqal, the Somali nomadic tent, arguing that the family would soon be returning. When he was offered a plot in the market, he turned it down. As the war in Somalia ground on, slowly they made adjustments: a hut of mud and sticks, a donkey cart for fetching water, a butchery business and now a generator, which sells homemade electricity to several blocks of the camp for a fee of 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($12) a month. And all the while they knew that this dry dusty soil was not home. They dreamed that they would soon be going to another place, that there was another life, waiting for them, somewhere.
Under international refugee law, people who flee their country because of war or persecution should be offered one of three “durable” solutions: either return to their country of origin; integration into their country of arrival; or resettlement to a third country. The huge refugee camps of Dadaab are a living testimonial to the failure of that system.
About 369,000 people, down from the peak of half a million following the famine of 2011, live here in the largest refugee camp in the world by some margin. (The second largest established camp is Kakuma, in north-west Kenya, with 125,000 refugees.) Dadaab is also Kenya’s fourth-largest city and the largest concentration of Somalis outside of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.
It is illegal to keep refugees in a camp, to deny them freedom of movement, but that is exactly what a fearful Kenyan government has done for more than two decades since the camp was established in 1992. Kenyan authorities forbid Mr Tawane and his family to leave the camp and prohibit their employment. They might be among the camp’s middle class, but they are in effect prisoners in a baking desert.
Nervous of an influx of more Somalis (an estimated half a million undocumented Somalis are living in Nairobi as well, according to government estimates), Kenya has sought to control the flood of people that has poured out of Somalia since the collapse of the last central government in 1991. Unwilling to countenance the idea that the refugees might have the right to stay in Kenya, the government has been caught in denial. It insists that Dadaab is temporary and forbids all permanent infrastructure, even as the camps have assumed the trappings of permanence: schools, hospitals, factories, markets, cinemas, even football leagues. And so, in a city whose population matches that of Atlanta, Georgia, the unpaved roads turn to mud in the rainy season, sewage runs freely and cholera festers every year.
Despite Dadaab’s squalor, return to Somalia is a scary prospect for a generation raised in the relative peace of the camps. Whatever politicians in Kenya, Somalia or the UK may claim, the country is still at war. Integration, a life in Kenya, is out of reach except for the lucky (and rich) few with the means to purchase Kenyan documents—a ready business in the camps. As a last resort, a whole generation has grown up dreaming of a life in the West as the only place where a traumatised mind might still dare to imagine another existence. But the numbers picked for resettlement every year are tiny. The process is a lottery based on the numbers on the refugees’ ration cards, with a bias towards those needing urgent protection.
Only the rich countries of Europe, North America and Australia volunteer to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to share the burden of hosting refugees. But they are even more reluctant than Kenya to welcome large numbers of Somalis into their country. In 2013, the UK took 316 Somali refugees from Dadaab, the USA took 312, Sweden 227, Canada 167, Australia 159 and Norway 144, according to the UNHCR. The number selected for resettlement is slightly more than the number born in the camp during one month. Despite the resettlement programme, the Dadaab camps’ population was 369,294 on February 17th 2014.
This leads to an impasse. Individuals like Mr Tawane must reconcile themselves to a life not much different from existence in a penal colony. Mr Tawane has given up hoping that he might be picked for resettlement. He has confined his ambitions to making money from his butchery and generator. And the Kenyan government can see no deadline to hosting huge numbers of people trapped in a policy cul-de-sac. Kenya attempted to break the impasse in 2011 by invading Somalia. It aimed to establish a buffer zone that would make it safe for the exiles to return home. The invasion has had some successes but a secure southern Somalia fit for refugee return remains a mirage on the horizon. After the Shabab, an Islamist militant group, attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last September, Kenya again insisted that Dadaab was a security risk. It demanded that people go home while the UN unhelpfully reminded the residents that return is voluntary under international and Kenyan law.
Very few people have heeded Kenya’s call. The only certain consequence of Kenya’s impatience with the camps is the deterioration in services as aid agencies hesitate to invest. As a result, disease, insecurity, frustration and, perhaps, the very radicalisation that Kenya fears, have spread.
Dadaab is a stark example of the failure of the refugee regime. The term the UN uses is “protracted refugee situation”, another way of saying “illegal indefinite encampment”. New ideas are desperately needed as the global refugee population is on the rise once again with crises in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria and the rapid construction of yet more new cities of plastic, sticks and tents. Slums in limbo occupy the grey spaces of international law: protection without freedom. It is a difficult bind in which to spend one’s days or years.
Mr Tawane and a generation like him have grown up in the camp going to school, college and even university by distance learning. They hope one day to put their energy and skills to use. Instead they are lying idle. Like their graying hair, their faith in an international system that appears to have abandoned them is thinning. In Dadaab their degrees are useless. Stuck, the refugees can go neither forward nor back, prisoners of what Mr Tawane calls, with a shake of his head, “this life of refugee”.
This article was first published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa
Ben Rawlence is researching and writing a book about Somali refugees in Kenya with the support of the Open Society Foundation. He is the author of “Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War”. Mr Rawlence received his master’s in international relations from the University of Chicago. He lives in London.
Pic Credit: A mass grave for children in Dadaab in 2011 by Oxfam East Africa