The Struggle to Save the World’s Largest Refugee Camp in Dadaab

Over 250,000 Somali refugees are facing the threat of forced repatriation and the loss of their livelihoods as the Kenyan government continues to seek ways to close camps in Dadaab.

There are currently five camps in northeast Kenya near the town of Dadaab, around 80km from the border with Somalia: Ifo, Dagahaley, Hagadera, Ifo II and Kambioos. The first three camps were initially set up in 1991, after Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted from power and civil war erupted in Somalia. Refugees fled across the border to Kenya as war ravaged Somalia for decades and central authority within the country disintegrated. Since the 1990s, Somalia has faced several problems including the failed peacekeeping mission by the US as well as the issue of piracy from its coast. Further unrest was sparked in 2007, when Al-Shabab militants made advances in southern and central Somalia and prompted Kenya to launch an armed intervention. Alongside this unrest, 130,000 refugees fled from drought and famine in southern Somalia in 2011 to the newly established Ifo II and Kambioos camps in Dadaab.

The newer camps are mostly home to pastoralists, but the older camps have developed over the past twenty years into almost ‘naturally-grown towns’ and commercial hubs connecting the region in Kenya to southern Somalia. People who fled unrest in the 1990s went on to have children and grandchildren, establishing proper family networks and communities within the older camps. Indeed, several stories from children born in the Dadaab camps as well as those who have been there for the majority of their lives suggest that real livelihoods have been developed over time. Many children, like Asad Hussein, grew up going to schools within the camp and have hopes of going to university and having careers.

EC/ECHO/Daniel Dickinson

Image courtesy of EC/ECHO/Daniel Dickinson, © 2010, some rights reserved.

But, as Abdullahi Mire writes, life in these camps is not easy. The lack of security around the camps mean that through the years there have been several kidnappings and threats from gunmen. Although many of the inhabitants have a good education, and even diplomas from a university within the camp, there is no hope of integration within Kenya as well as no possibility of real protection from a working government in Somalia if they decided to return there.

Refugees in the Dadaab camps, then, have few options. As a result, the camps themselves have become home to over a quarter of a million people. This home, however, is now being threatened by the Kenyan government, which wishes to close the camps in the near future. For years, the Kenyan government in Nairobi has stated that Al-Shabab has managed to infiltrate the camps and now uses them as bases to launch terrorist attacks against Kenya. Deputy President of Kenya, William Ruto, said in an address to the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 that the camp had become a burden on Kenya due to its financial needs. Moreover, the camp has posed an ‘existential threat’ over the past two years due to the infiltration of Al-Shabab militants and the use of the camp as a base for the smuggling of arms and a centre for radicalisation. This point became especially important after the attack in the Kenyan town of Garissa, where 148 students were killed by Al-Shabab militants.

The government in Nairobi now plans to close the camps by repatriating refugees to Somalia and said many have agreed to do so willingly. Although the UN has reluctantly agreed to these plans, there are many questions surrounding the situation these refugees would face if forced back to Somalia. The UN itself has recently announced that the world is facing its ‘greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945’ with famines in countries such as Yemen and Somalia. Humanitarian groups have reported that lack of water has caused the death of livestock and killed crops, meaning that 6.2 million people in Somalia are now facing starvation. The BBC has further stated that 110 people are reported to have died within 48 hours in one region alone. With lingering piracy threats and unrest in Somalia, it is difficult to know whether aid will even reach those in need in time. Somalia itself, then, is not a suitable or viable place for refugees in Dadaab to be repatriated to.

For now, a Kenyan court ruling has delayed the decision to close the Dadaab camps. Human rights groups such as Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Kituo Cha Sheria had campaigned for such a decision, and argued that the closure of the camps would have been unconstitutional. The Kenyan government, however, remains determined to appeal the ruling and repatriate the refugees as soon as possible. Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Muthoni Wanyeki, has urged the international community and Kenyan government to see the human rights abuses these refugees would be facing in Somalia if repatriated. In addition, the rights and protection of refugees must be respected, and alternative ways of accommodating those fleeing persecution and danger must be found.

Although the Kenyan government is determined that the terrorist threat from within the Dadaab camp is too great to ignore, politicians and the international community must be careful to treat refugees in Dadaab with dignity and compassion. People within these camps have developed communities, had families, gained an education and are looking for opportunities in Kenya and abroad. For many, neither Somalia nor Kenya is home. Rather, as Asad Hussein explains, many see themselves as children of the UNHCR; they have grown up without the proper protection of a single government and have succeeded in a place where opportunities are thought to be low. The international community has a responsibility to protect those in the Dadaab camps and ensure that they are given safe opportunities rather than being forcibly repatriated to a dangerous and volatile country.