Dadaab’s refugees: Stolen dreams and shattered livesMost Kenyans get their first taste of Somalia either in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, also known as “Little Mogadishu” or, if they are journalists or aid workers, in Dadaab, the sprawling refugee camp located some 100 kilometers from the Kenya-Somalia border that hosts close to 350,000 refugees, most of whom are Somalis.
Lately, both Eastleigh and Dadaab have been in the news as the Kenyan government tightens its grip on Somali refugees following a spate of al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya’s northeastern and coastal regions. The government has also been calling for the repatriation of the refugees to Somalia and the closing down of the Dadaab camp.
However, repatriation is not an option for many of the young people in Dadaab who have never known any other home.
When one-year-old Ahmed Dimbil arrived in Dadaab from Kismayo with his father in 1991 at the start of the civil war, he had no idea that he would spend his entire childhood and youth here. His widower father died shortly after arriving at the camp; Ahmed was raised by his older brother who also lives here.
Ahmed is among those Somali refugees who have never experienced life outside Dadaab. He told me he only left the camp once, in 2003, when he made a brief visit to the nearby Garissa town with some friends. That was when the movement of refugees was not as restricted as it is now.
Ahmed works as an interpreter at Dadaab’s UNHCR field office. This 26 year-old refugee is a young and ambitious man trapped in a world that he has little control over. At the hot and dusty Ifo camp, one of five camps that make up the Dadaab complex, there is little chance of upward, or even horizontal, mobility.
Without a college degree, and very little income, he can only dream of a better life in another country, but obtaining asylum is becoming increasingly difficult, and waiting lists are long.
In January 2015, Ahmed got married to the love of his life, Nasro, a fellow refugee, who is among the newer lot of refugees that arrived in Dadaab in 2010. The couple are now expecting their first child, who will be one of thousands that are born in the camp each year.
Fertility rates are high in Dadaab. UNHCR officials told me that approximately 1,000 babies are born in the camp every month. Sexual violence is also a concern. The hospital run by the Red Cross in Dadaab receives an average of one rape victim per week.
Although Ifo camp has the look of a rural village, with goats and camels wandering around small shops selling everything from mobile phones to soap, the UNHCR-donated plastic sheeting tents that residents call home and the restricted mobility make it feel like a an open prison.
There are schools, clinics, food distribution centres and boreholes set up by aid agencies, but as Raouf Mazou, the country representative for UNHCR in Kenya, admits, the camp provides “a false sense of normality” in a highly abnormal environment.
It is estimated that the refugees in the camp outnumber the host community population by a ratio of 3 to 1. As one UNHCR official told me, if there was no refugee camp, there would be no town in Dadaab.
“Dadaab exists because we exist,” he said. It is estimated that Dadaab’s economy generates about $25 million a year and that the host community around the camp earns approximately $14 million a year in trade and contracts.
However, these economic activities take place under highly oppressive and restrictive conditions.
Refugees in Dadaab have little control over the decisions that affect their lives, which creates a sense of helplessness and despair. Living as a refugee dependent on handouts for long periods erodes prescribed gender roles and leads to loss of self-esteem and dignity.
Men in the camps feel emasculated and women face the constant threat of rape and other forms of violence inflicted by both fellow refugees and security agencies. There have been reports of night-time raids by Kenyan security forces that resulted in robberies and rape. Restrictions imposed on the refugees by the Kenyan government make it difficult for the refugees to move out of the camp and establish a financially independent existence.
Drug addiction and khat-chewing are widespread among young men in the camps, says Ahmed, mainly because there is little else to do. In the inception study titled “The Impact of War on Somali Men” authors Judith Gardner and Judy El-Bushra found that khat addiction and mental illnesses emerge both as causes and effects of male failure to fulfil family responsibilities.
“For a man, socialised to be responsible, a clan member, a decision-maker and provider for the family, in the camp environment ‘manhood’…becomes unachievable,” say the study’s authors. This deepens the men’s frustration, exacerbates their traumas and can lead to depression and violent behaviour.
UNHCR says that the majority of refugees in Dadaab view local integration as the most favourable solution to their plight, but the Kenyan government will not allow it. On the contrary, the Kenyan government’s position on refugees has become even more hardline, with increasing demands that the camp be shut down permanently.
Officials at the UN refugee agency say that given the political, social and economic implications of integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees into Kenyan society, the government’s position is understandable, but refugees’ rights under international laws must be respected.
The tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia, which aims to bring about the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees, is being implemented, but has not yet yielded significant results.
By June 2015, only 2,313 refugees had gone back to Kismayo, Baidoa and Luuq, the three areas in Somalia identified as suitable for resettlement, although there are plans to open up Mogadishu, Jowhar and other districts for returning refugees.
Ahmed has no family or land in Somalia so going back is not an option. He says acquiring Kenyan citizenship is not an attractive alternative either because he has not known life outside the camp, and would find it difficult to assimilate into Kenyan society. Instead, Ahmed is looking for a third country where he can start afresh, a place where he can forget about the harshness of life in Dadaab and where he and his family can lead normal lives.
Somalia stole Ahmed’s dreams, Dadaab stifled them and the repatriation programme may just kill them.
Ahmed says that while he is grateful to Dadaab for giving him an education, which he may have been denied if he had continued living in Somalia, learning to read and write does not compensate for the fact that his life has been stunted, as have the lives of thousands of other refugees living in Dadaab.
Rasna Warah is a columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper and the author of War Crimes, Mogadishu Then and Now, Red Soil and Roasted Maize and Triple Heritage. You can follow her on Twitter @ or email her: email@example.com