Rows of white tents line the dirt streets. Each one says UNHCR on the side and houses a family of refugees. There are larger temporary structures for schools, hospitals, and administrative buildings. Again, these structures are not buildings. They could have been built within an hour and will be torn down even faster. Refugee camps are cities made to be temporary. Refugees are supposed to return home when it is safe. Then, they will not be fed by the scarce rations of the camp, or bargain for basic goods on a black market. When they return home, they may receive medical care from an actual doctors office or a hospital, rather than going to another tent marked for medical care. The refugee camp is supposed to be temporary. It is supposed to accommodate for the needs of people fleeing their homes for a short period of time. Dadaab is not a temporary refugee camp. It has been operating since 1991. It is a 26 year old refugee city, with third generation residents who have never even seen their home nation.
Dadaab is located in Kenya, approximately 50 miles from Somalia’s border. It is the world’s largest refugee camp, currently housing 249,144 registered Somali refugees. If it were a city, it would Kenya’s third largest. It was built in 1991 to hold 90,000 Somali refugees fleeing civil war, but as international attempts at peace failed the camp continued to grow. Nearly 100,000 of Dadaab’s residents are third generation refugees born and raised in the camp. Dadaab is one of many long-term refugee camps around the world where refugees live in limbo in supposedly temporary camps. When camps become long-term solutions, host nations like Kenya struggle to provide resources and security for refugees. With help from international organizations this pressure may be manageable, but funding and attention has shifted to the middle east, leaving camps elsewhere severely underfunded and increasingly unwanted. Due to these problems, in November 2015 Kenya declared Dadaab would be closed and evacuated by the end of the month. All refugees would return to Somalia.
The Kenyan government considers Dadaab a breeding ground for extremism. The Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab controls vast amounts of territory in Somalia and has taken credit for several terror attacks in nearby countries like Kenya. Al-Shabaab’s deadliest attack was in April 2015 at Garissa University in Kenya. The Kenyan government believed that the attack was planned within Dadaab despite limited evidence to support their claim. Following the attack the government made several attempts to expel or relocate refugees before ultimately declaring the closure of both Dadaab and the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs in November 2016.
Fortunately, the attempt to close Dadaab failed after Kenya’s High Court, the equivalent of America’s Federal District Court, ruled that closing the camp was illegal and discriminatory. Contrary to statements by the Kenyan government Somalia is unsuitable for refugee repatriation. The country is still ravaged by the war, famine, poverty and disease that the refugees fled. The court ordered Kenya to reopen the Refugee Affairs department and Dadaab. Kenya intends to appeal to a higher court, but the closure attempts reveal a larger problem in Dadaab.
Kenya is an unwilling host. The government prevents refugees from seeking work permits for nearby areas, and opposes integration for refugees. Kenya claims that refugees are a threat to their economy and security. Therefore, refugees must remain in designated camps where they are dependent on aid for food and basic supplies. Unfortunately, aid is continually fluctuating. The World Food Program’s funding for Dadaab dropped 30% as more funds were transferred to Syria and in 2016. Kenya received only 28% of requested funding from the UNHCR for refugee operations. Currently, Dadaab’s residents receive one third of the minimum nutritional standards suggested by the UN. Disease outbreaks are common, especially during the rainy season when some parts of the camp flood, and the UN bureaucracy struggles to solve these problems. Some problems, like disease outbreaks, could be solved through improved infrastructure. However, Kenya strongly opposes the construction of any permanent infrastructure like schools, hospitals, or water centers. Though Dadaab is a long-term solution for refugees, there are only short-term facilities to accommodate residents.
Ideally, UNHCR would begin repatriation to Somalia rather than house refugees in Dadaab for the long term. However, refugees cannot return to Somalia. Al-Shabaab retains control of vast amounts of land despite efforts by the UN and African Union to reclaim cities and establish a new government. Though Al-Shabaab may recruit refugees from Dadaab, refugees returned in Somalia would be subject to violence under Al-Shabaab in many areas and may be forced into radicalization from desperation.
After Kenya attempted to close Dadaab, 51,000 refugees voluntarily returned to Somalia, despite not wanting to leave. Most used the UN repatriation program that offers $200 per family member plus other grants for basic living needs to refugees who voluntarily leave Dadaab. Refugees are afraid of being sent home without anything if Kenya successfully closes the camp later. The returned refugees faced closed borders in territories who claimed they were not prepared for refugees to return. In the case of the port town Kismayo in Somalia, returned refugees are now living in unsupplied camps around the city, unable to enter. The former refugees lack the food, shelter, healthcare, education, and legal support they received in Dadaab. They return to a place where 1 million people are already displaced and five million lack food. As a result, many repatriated refugees are now returning to Dadaab. However, the refugees who they voluntarily returned through the UNHCR are not eligible for refugee status, and cannot use UNHCR resources in Dadaab. Without the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs returners cannot attempt to re-register for refugee status either. Returned refugees living without documentation on the outskirts of Dadaab are subject to arrest and deportation.
Dadaab’s residents live contingent on the hope that Kenya will not forcibly close the camp. Defenseless against the chaos of their own home, they are trapped in refugee city. Even if Somalia were to be peaceably stabilized in the near future, repatriated refugees are unlikely to be able to build dignified lives there without significant long-term international assistance. Second and third generation refugees in Dadaab may even opt to remain in Dadaab or Kenya rather than return to a foreign country.
If the conflict in Somalia cannot be resolved, Kenya remains a home for the residents of Dadaab. While integrating refugees in Kenya seems like a plausible solution to remove refugees from camp conditions, Kenya refuses to integrate Somali refugees into their population. Kenya also cannot independently provide integration strategies for over 200,000 refugees with limited education, cultural familiarity, and work experience. Refusing integration and relocating refugees to other camps is costly and ignores their social and cultural needs. For now, the most plausible solution for Dadaab is keeping the camp open. There are already some provisions for healthcare, legal services, education, and job training in the camp. If less aid-dependent strategies, improved infrastructure, and funding could be provided, camp conditions could be improved without moving or harming refugees. If Dadaab remains open, Kenya must accept their responsibility to refugees and allow them to build meaningful lives in refugee city.
Dadaab illustrates the danger of allowing temporary settlements to become permanent cities. The global refugee crisis is growing, but few long-term solutions are being developed. If the world hopes to solve this crisis, they must prepare refugees to rebuild their home nation after repatriation and stabilize humanitarian crisis. Dadaab represents an unsuccessful solution to an ongoing crisis. While other refugee camps around the world are innovating ways to create their own economies, food supply, and infrastructure to allow populations to live dignified lives, Dadaab has no comparable solutions. Refugees should not be stranded in a camp for 26 years, dependent on aid, wondering if their host nation with send them away from their only home. Host nations and the international community must ensure that refugees are given the opportunity to live dignified lives beyond the humanitarian crisis.