Kenya loses patience over Dadaab refugee camp housing displaced Somalis



Home to 351,000 seen as a breeding ground for al-Shabaab militants

Events that led Dagane Kenedid to Kenya from his village in Somalia in the early 1990s mark the most gruelling period of his life. Armed men swept into his village with murderous intent, killing four of his brothers and making off with all of their livestock.

For Mr Kenedid, worse was to come. He gathered his family – his wife and two small children – and joined his surviving siblings on the walk to safety in Kenya hundreds of miles away. They were on the road for 37 days, scrabbling for what little food there was, but it was not enough. In despair he watched his three-year-old son starve to death.

When the shattered family arrived at Dadaab refugee camp, they knew safety for the first time since the 1991 overthrow of Somali dictator Siad Barre that had plunged their homeland into anarchy.

In the intervening years, Mr Kenedid, 53, and his family have made this unforgiving spot of scrub in Kenya’s northern frontier home. The thought of returning to Somalia, racked still by insecurity, is unthinkable. “Personally, I don’t ever want to go back because I lost my brothers there,” he said. “I just want to educate my children.”

Dadaab, a vast outpost of makeshift homes and tents, was set up in 1991 to provide a haven for Somalis fleeing civil war. Drought and famine later made life unbearable for tens of thousands more, with the numbers swelling to half a million at its peak. It is now home to 351,000 refugees, virtually all Somali.

Nevertheless, Dadaab’s future is uncertain. After militants from Somalia’s al-Shabaab attacked a university in Garissa in Kenya three weeks ago, killing 148 people, politicians called for the closure of the complex, seen as a recruiting ground and haven for the al-Qaeda-linked group. Warning that Kenya would change “the way America changed after 9/11”, Vice-President William Ruto ordered UNHCR, the international body that runs Dadaab, to close down the camp within three months, or Kenya would do it for it.

In the wake of furious international reaction, Kenya has softened its stance – for now. Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed last week ruled out involuntary repatriation to Somalia, but appealed to donors for more funds to enable refugees to return home, and the camp to shut. “If we can move those refugees within three months, we will do it,” she said.

Leonard Zulu, UNHCR’s senior representative in Dadaab, said that shutting down the camp as long as Somalia remains unstable would be a “tragedy”. “It is not practical. It is not feasible,” he said. “The situation in south-central Somalia is not safe.”

The earliest shelters at Dadaab have an air of permanence – dusty compounds ringed by thorn fences – and the inhabitants, most of whom survive on meagre food rations, compete with Kenyan villagers for scarce resources, generating resentment.

Life at the camp is very hard. The World Food Programme, hit globally by a funding shortfall, has cut food rations to a minimum; NGOs have curtailed assistance because of rising insecurity; and, apart from a lucky few who get passes to travel within Kenya or are resettled abroad, the refugees never leave Dadaab.

“The word ‘refugee’ is a stigma. I don’t want to be a refugee,” said Mr Kenedid. “As long as my children are refugees, regardless of their education, they will go nowhere.”

Yet few wish to return to Somalia. In a voluntary repatriation scheme launched in November 2013, just over 2,000 have gone back. Swathes of the Somali countryside remain in the hands of al-Shabaab, making it unsafe for most to return, and there is very limited access to healthcare and education. The refugees long ago lost their homes and livelihoods.

Somali girls attending morning madrassa in the Dadaab refugee camp (AFP)

Somali girls attending morning madrassa in the Dadaab refugee camp (AFP)

Ahmed Mohamed Abdi, 47, fled to Kenya in 1992 after raiders killed his father and took their animals. “We thought, ‘Let’s just get to Kenya and save our lives.’” Once in Kenya, he didn’t expect to stay for long. But more than two decades later, he has spent nearly half of his life here, and fathered 10 children. “The only flag my children know is the Kenyan flag,” he said. More than 60,000 third-generation refugees living in the camp have never known another home.

Many question whether Kenya has the political will to close Dadaab. It would counter Kenyan’s own security interests – thousands of jobless Somali refugee youth would be ready prey for al-Shabaab – while the government would lose the revenue it gains from the camp.

Since its attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013, al-Shabaab has launched attacks in retaliation for Kenya’s participation in an African Union force that has pushed the militant group out of major towns in Somalia. Consequently, Somalis in Kenya face a hostile environment. Kenya has argued its toughening stance is justified by the threat the Somali community poses to its citizens. The Garissa attackers “stayed in the [Dadaab] refugee camp; they assembled their arms there”, Ali Bunow Korane, who chairs Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Commission, told a Nairobi forum last week. “Kenya has very serious security challenges that have a direct bearing on refugees.”

But analysts argue that Kenya faces a much greater threat from communities, particularly along the predominantly Muslim coast, where marginalisation and police brutality have pushed many Kenyans into the embrace of al-Shabaab.

“Al-Shabaab [in Kenya] is not a Somali problem. It’s an extremist vehicle for all sorts of grievances, mainly Muslim, but not exclusively so,” said Ben Rawlence, author of a forthcoming book on Dadaab called City of Thorns. “Refugees are a very, very minor part of the picture.”