A transit camp to house Somalis fleeing war has, over two decades, become the largest refugee camp in the world. Now its 360 000 residents face an uncertain future as the Kenyan government announces its closure.

dadaab MSF Nenna Arnold Housing in the Dadaab camps are temporary and built using UNHCR tents and whatever the residents can salvage from their surroundings. (Image: UNHCR/ Nenna Arnold)


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Sulaiman Philip

Dadaab is a melting pot of east African refugees. Twenty five years after it was first set up, Dadaab has become a sprawling permanent favela in the middle of an inhospitable desert where life does not stand still. Long-time residents have built a thriving market economy that provides clothes, vegetables, fresh meat, mobile phones and ice.

If Dadaab was a city, it would be the third largest in Kenya. Instead Dadaab is a refugee camp and home to 360 000 Somali refugees in the arid east of Kenya, about 100 kilometres from Somalia's border.

Set up in 1991 to host 90 000 Somali refugees fleeing the civil war, it was meant to be a temporary transit camp. Today Dadaab houses refugees in five separate camps (Dagahaley, Hagadera, Ifo and Ifo II and Kambioos), with a further 60 000 people living outside the fence. Most of its residents have fled civil war and the worst drought in six decades to make a home in Dadaab.

In 2014, Nordic government analysts found that it is the economic powerhouse of the region. Kenyans flock to what was once a sleepy province to work for the UN and other aid organisations, or to take jobs with refugee-owned businesses in the camps. Businesses in the camp make up to $30-million (R470-million) annually. It is the largest market between Nairobi and Mogadishu. Kenyans around Dadaab earn $1.8 million (R28.2-million) annually from selling livestock to traders in the camp alone.

Despite this economic value, the Kenyan government plans to shut it down, citing fears of an Al Shabab infiltration.

Watch a powerful documentary produced by residents of Dadaab.

Integration an option

Some in Kenya and most in Dadaab believe the solution is not to shut down the camp but to make it easier for refugees to integrate into Kenyan society.

Abdirashid Abdullahi, a journalist with Dadaab's Gargaar radio station, told the humanitarian news service IRIN the UN and the Kenyan government needs to look for a solution for a population that has been kept in limbo. He said Kenyans do not allow any permanent structure to be built for housing and the UN does not allow residents to leave the camp until they have won resident status outside of Kenya or are willing to be repatriated to Somalia.

"Dadaab refugees need a durable solution, besides resettlement. Integrating them into Kenyan society is inevitable since Somalia is not ready for a mass return at this point," he said.

"For a significant number of refugees, the only home they know is Kenya. So keeping them in camps against their will is not helping them. It's time to review the repatriation process and look for other sustainable solutions to bring an end to the world’s largest refugee complex."

Struggling to meet basic needs

Life is not easy in the camp. Humanitarian agencies working in Dadaab are trying to provide basic needs to the refugees. By their own guidelines this means at least 20 litres of water a day, some food, basic health services and some shelter. But they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of residents and constant funding shortfalls. It takes 9 300 tons of food a month, at a cost of $9.6-million (R150-million), to feed all of Dadaab's residents.

The camps are laid out in lettered sections and numbered blocks, bisected by roads wide enough for security patrols cars. The size of individual plots are determined by the size of the family that has been assigned to the space.

Every two weeks a truck would deliver rations of maize, wheat and beans in measurements known as family size, a UN measurement designed to feed the tenants of each plot. Water was delivered every other day until aid organisations began drilling bore holes. In 1992 water could be found 20 metres below ground. Today you have to bore 400 metres down before you strike water.

As the camp became less transitory, the UN built clinics, and set aside space for market stalls at the centre of each camp. The Kenyan government helped formalise the schools that sprung up under the remaining trees in the camp. It also became home to the first university built inside a refugee camp when Kenyatta University opened a campus in 2012. It was a new addition to the thirteen schools and training centres – all connected to the internet – that have been established in Dadaab.

Watch UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie tour Dadaab.

Some residents have known no other life. In February 2016, The Guardian newspaper interviewed 25-year-old Mohammed Abdi Abdulahi and his wife Sara Hassan. They dream of a new country and home for their daughter, Sumaiya, who is one of 6 000 grandchildren of the first Dadaab arrivals. The couple want what most parents want, to live a life where anything can be possible.

As Hassan told The Guardian journalist, "We dreamt of getting a good education and good jobs. But as we grew older, we understood the limits of our lives. We wouldn't want Sumaiya to give up on her aspirations."