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We need to find sustainable solutions for Dadaab refugees

Dahabo left Somalia in June 1992 after hordes of men swept through her house and killed her brother. She was 13 years old when she arrived in the Dadaab refugee complex, known in the local dialect as the 'rocky hard...

Dec 30th 2019 · 14 min read
We need to find sustainable solutions for Dadaab refugees

By Dana Krause | Medecins  

She is still there today, now with her own 13-year-old daughter. Their story defies the short-term logic of refugee camps. Isolated, almost forgotten, they fear a return to Somalia and the insecurity that awaits them there.

But this week, governments have another chance to unblock the decades-long limbo of 200,000 Dadaab residents like Dahabo at the first ever Global Refugee Forum.

On the ground, we are witnessing a renewed commitment to finding solutions for refugees here. Since 2014, over 80,000 refugees have returned to Somalia as part of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme. Within Kenya, communities hosting refugees in Dadaab have shown remarkable generosity, while facing their own development challenges. County governments, with support from UNHCR, are developing pathways for refugees to access public services and integrate locally.

These are vital developments in resolving the long-term encampment of refugees. But the wider context remains pitted against lasting solutions for all. Refugees still cannot move freely outside the camp complex nor access formal education and employment; international assistance has struggled to keep up with refugees' needs; and insecurity reigns in Somalia.

Meanwhile, in Dadaab, water shortages are frequent, there is rarely enough food, and Dahabo and her eight children live cramped in a wind-blasted hut made of plastic sheeting.

One recent morning, Dahabo sat with her daughter, Marian, in the MSF clinic in Dagahaley camp, one of three camps that comprise Dadaab's sprawling refugee complex. Suffering from a congenital disease, Marian is often wracked by fits that leave her exhausted and weak. Every month, she comes to the clinic to receive her treatment. She could be cured in a specialised hospital, but in Dadaab, only those that need urgent, life-saving surgery can seek care outside the camps.

A fragile balance has been maintained between normalcy and emergency, life and death. As months became years and years became decades, this has trapped people in a paralysis from where they can neither move forwards nor backwards.

To end refugees' confinement, overtures by local counties like Garissa must be backed up by Kenyan authorities implementing policies that allow refugees to freely move, study and work. Host countries including Kenya should receive the full support of the international community to integrate refugees locally through pledges of long-term assistance to strengthen and expand local service delivery. In the transition from a chronic emergency towards longer-term solutions, it is vital that the quality and quantity of services to refugees is not compromised.

At the same time, both traditional and new resettlement countries should commit to increasing the number of resettlement places. This should be complemented by other pathways to self-reliance such as scholarships, work permits, extended family reunification and private sponsorships.

MSF has stood alongside refugees and host communities for most of Dadaab's existence and we will continue to provide medical care to refugees and host communities. But having witnessed first-hand for years the scarcity and uncertainty in which people have been forced to live, it is agonising to see such daily affronts to their dignity.

For the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have only known life in the camps of Dadaab, sustainable solutions out of this rocky hard place are desperately needed.

From Dadaab, we will be watching the world's first refugee summit with expectant eyes.

Dadaab Dadaab is a semi-arid town in Garissa County, Kenya . It is the site of a UNHCR base hosting 211,365 registered refugees and asylum seekers in three camps (Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo,) as of the 13 May 2019,  making it the third-largest such complex in the world.  The centre is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and its operations are financed by foreign donors.  In 2013, UNHCR, the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement facilitating the repatriation of Somali refugees at the complex. 


The Dadaab camps Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo were constructed in 1992. In 2011 and 2013, two new refugee camps were opened when 164,000 new refugees from Somalia arrived, due to severe drought.  The Ifo II camp extension was originally constructed in 2007 by the Norwegian Refugee Council, in response to major flooding that destroyed over 2,000 homes in the Ifo refugee camp. However, legal problems with the Kenyan Government prevented Ifo II from fully opening for relocation, until 2011.  As of May 13, Hagadera was the largest of the camps, containing just over 74,744 individuals and 17,490 households.  Ifo refugee camp, on the other hand, is the smallest camp with 65,974 refugees.[2] Former Kambioss and Ifo2 refugee camps were closed in April 2017 and May 2018, respectively.

Ifo camp was first settled by refugees from the civil war in Somalia. The UNHCR subsequently made efforts to improve the premises. As the population of the camps in Dadaab grew, UNHCR commissioned the German architect Werner Schellenberg to draw the original design for Dagahaley Camp, as well as the Swedish architect Per Iwansson, who designed and initiated the establishment of Hagadera camp.

Population growth and decline

People first began arriving at the Dadaab complex shortly after its construction in 1992, with most escaping the Somali Civil War.  When refugees arrive at the camp, they are registered and fingerprinted by the Kenyan government.  However, the camps themselves are managed by the UNHCR, with other organizations directly in charge of specific aspects of the resident' lives. CARE oversees Water and Sanitation Hygiene as well as warehouse management and the World Food Programme (WFP) distributes food rations. Until 2003,only Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided refugees with access to health-care. Now, healthcare is decentralized. Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) provides health care services in ifo refugee camp, International Rescue committee (IRC) in Hagadera and Medicins Sans Frontieres in Dagahley refugee camp. Although refugees arriving at Dadaab receive assistance from each of these organizations, aid is often not immediate due to overcrowding.  Other relief organizations include Danish Refugee Agency (DRC), Norwegian Refugee Agency (NRC), Windle International, Lutheran World Federation, Center for Victims of Torture, In July 2011, due to a drought in Eastern Africa, over 1,000 people per day were arriving in need of assistance. The influx reportedly placed great strain on the resources, as the capacity of the camps was around 90,000, whereas the camps hosted 439,000 refugees in July 2011 according to the UNHCR. The number was predicted to increase to 500,000 by the end of 2011 according to estimates from Médecins Sans Frontières. Those population figures at the time made Dadaab the largest refugee camp in the world. According to the Lutheran World Federation, military operations in the conflict zones of southern Somalia and a scaling up of relief operations had by early December 2011 greatly reduced the movement of migrants into Dadaab.


Before the UNHCR base was opened, the local town population traditionally consisted of nomadic ethnic Somali pastoralists, who were mainly camel and goat herders. However, since the 1990s, an influx of refugees has dramatically shifted the demographics of the area. Most of the people living in Dadaab have fled various conflicts in the broader Eastern Africa region. The majority have come as a consequence of the civil war in southern Somalia as well as due to droughts. According to Human Rights Watch, most of these displaced persons belong to the Bantu ethnic minority population as well as the Rahanweyn clan. Most of the latter have migrated from the southern Jubba Valley and the Gedo region, while the remainder have arrived from Kismayo, Mogadishu and Bardera.

In 2005, around 97 per cent of registered refugees at Dadaab were Muslims from Somalia. The remainder mainly consisted of Muslims from the Somali Region (Ogaden) in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Christians and Sudanese Christians, totaling 4,000 individuals. While the Muslim minorities did not face any persecution, tensions with the Christian minorities were reportedly high.

According to the UNHCR, 80 per cent of residents were women and children and 95 per cent were Somalia nationals as of mid-2015.  Of the registered refugee population from Somalia, the number of men and women is equal, but only 4 per cent of the total population is over the age of sixty.  Each year, thousands of children are born in the Dadaab camps. A number of adults have spent their entire lives as refugees in the complex.


The Dadaab refugee camp complex is so vast that it has been compared to a city, with urban features such as high population density, economic activity, and concentration of infrastructure. Like a typical urban area, Dadaab contains public service buildings such as schools and hospitals. The Ifo II camp, for example, includes religious spaces, a disability center, police stations, graveyards, a bus station, and more. In addition, it is designed in a grid-like pattern, with the market on one side and a green belt at the center of the many lines of tents. Despite these many amenities, however, the camps are crowded and have few signposts, making them confusing and difficult to navigate for new arrivals.

Refugees in Dadaab typically live in tents, which are made of plastic sheeting and distributed by the UNHCR. Although many residents have voluntarily repatriated, the camps are still overcrowded and exceed their intended capacity. In addition to tents, some residents have built makeshift homes for shelter and to escape the heat of the sun. On average, four people live together in each household.

Living conditions

With camps filled to capacity, NGOs have worked to improve camp conditions. However, as most urban planners frequently lack the tools to contend with such complex issues, there have been few innovations to improve Dadaab. Opportunities remain such as upgrading and expansion processes for communications infrastructure, environmental management and design. Aside from the infrastructure, some of the factors affecting quality of life for refugees are health-care and diet, education, environment, security, and their economic and legal status.


According to the Kenya Commissioner for Refugees, when migrants first began arriving in Dadaab town from Somalia, they were all educated. An assessment survey completed in 2011 found that access to education in Dadaab was considerably limited, restricting the ability of refugees at the center to find jobs and become less reliant on aid organizations. Dadaab had only one secondary school; those who managed to be educated there could receive jobs working for aid agencies such as CARE, WFP, or GTZ that distribute resources to refugees. Those who were uneducated could pursue jobs in restaurants or helping load and unload trucks. Many chose other modes of subsistence. In 2011, only around 48 per cent of children in Dadaab were enrolled in school.

In response, the Ministry of Education of Somalia announced that all high school students at the center who were Somali citizens would be eligible for higher education scholarships. To further improve the education standards, a new European Union-funded project was launched in 2013. The initiative was earmarked for three years, with $4.6 million allocated toward its syllabus. It included new classrooms for all local schools, adult programs, girls' special education, and scholarships for elite students based on merit. 75 per cent of the funds were set aside for refugees at the complex, and 25 per cent were reserved for local constituencies in Lagdera and Fafi.

Health care

The German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) provides basic health-care. On a typical day, around 1,800 refugees get outpatient treatment in hospitals inside the camps. Since 2015, Dadaab has had the largest solar-powered borehole in Africa, which is equipped with 278 solar panels and provides 16,000 residents of the complex with a daily average of about 280,000 litres of water.

Local health risks are complicated by overcrowding. They include diarrhea, pulmonary issues, fever, measles, acute jaundice syndrome, and cholera. Hepatitis E is also a potential issue, as the premises often have substandard sanitary facilities and unclean water.

One reason refugees arrive at the camps is displacement caused by natural disasters. By the end of 2011, more than 25 per cent of residents at the complex had come as a result of a drought in Eastern Africa.  Individuals arriving under these conditions were already malnourished, and once at the camps they could experience additional food scarcity.  Although malnutrition is a contributing factor to high death rates among children, it has been observed that life expectancy at the complex is positively correlated with years of inhabitation.  

Refugees receive food rations containing cereal, legumes, oil, and sugar from the World Food Programme (WFP).  Due to overcrowding and lack of resources, they are not eligible for their initial rations until 12 days after arrival, on average.  The rations are generally first distributed to children under the age of five because they are at the greatest health risk.  Markets at each of the camps have fresh food for sale. However, due to limited income opportunities, most residents are unable to afford them.[41] Some have used innovations such as multi-storey gardens to supplement rations. These require only basic supplies to construct and less water to maintain than normal gardens.  


Deforestation has an effect on the lives of Dadaab's residents. ] Although they are typically required to remain in the camp, residents often have to venture out in search of firewood and water. They are thus obliged to travel farther due to deforestation in nearby areas.  This leaves women and girls vulnerable to violence as they journey to and from the complex.  

In 2006, flooding severely affected the region. More than 2,000 homes at the Ifo camp were destroyed, forcing the relocation of more than 10,000 refugees. The sole access road to the camp and to the town was also cut off by the floods, impeding the delivery of essential supplies. Humanitarian agencies present in the area worked together to bring vital goods to the area.  

In 2011, a drought in Eastern Africa caused a dramatic surge in the camps' population, placing greater strain on resources.  By February 2012, aid agencies had shifted their emphasis to recovery efforts, including digging irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.  Long-term strategies by national governments in conjunction with development agencies are believed to offer the most sustainable results.  Rainfall had also surpassed expectations and rivers were flowing again, improving the prospects of a good harvest in early 2012.  


Refugees at the UNHCR center are not protected by the Government of Kenya (GOK). This has contributed to dangerous living conditions and outbreaks of violence.  Because they are not protected under the law and are unable to possess a Kenyan national identification card, refugees are constantly at risk for arrest.  Additionally, the Kenyan government screens ethnic Somalis and Ethiopians separately from other residents due to their different physical characteristics. A special category in local police documents is earmarked for "Kenyan-Somalis".  

While all refugees at the camp are at risk of violence, the UNHCR and CARE have identified women and children as being particularly vulnerable.  They have created a department called 'Vulnerable Women and Children' (VWC) to tackle the issues surrounding violence against these populations.  As of August 2015, 60 per cent of Dadaab's total population is under the age of 18, and there are equal numbers of men and women, so women and children make up a significant portion of the camps' demographics.  Specifically, the VWC department has identified orphans, widows, divorcees, rape victims and the disabled as the most vulnerable among all women and children.  They offer counseling, additional food rations and supplies, and advice on how to earn an income and be financially self-sufficient.  However, the effectiveness of these efforts has been questioned, and following an analysis by Dr. Aubone at St. Mary's University, more research and data is required to identify the best ways to prevent gender-based violence at the complex.  

Economic and legal status

Operations at the complex are financed by foreign donors.  Despite this, public perception in Kenya is that refugees in general cause a strain on the economy. Research, however, has found that many refugees are economically self-sufficient for the most part.  

In order to try to further increase the economic independence of refugees living in Dadaab, CARE has initiated microfinance programs, which are particularly important for encouraging women to start their own businesses.  However, recent scholarly research has identified some flaws with microfinance, arguing that it has unintended negative consequences.  Microfinance typically requires borrowers to pay very high interest rates, which can be detrimental to the poorest if any unexpected problems or crises arise.  Living in a community with other economically disadvantaged individuals can also make it difficult to make a profit from a business venture since potential customers are not able to afford the service or product that is being sold.[56] Others have argued that this is beneficial to individuals as a short-term economic solution, but that over the long-term it does not improve the economy as a whole.  CARE is also working to create more inclusive markets that refugees are able to participate in to profit off of their newly acquired skills and business ventures.  

Repatriation and resettlement

In November 2013, the Foreign Ministries of Somalia and Kenya and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement in Mogadishu paving the way for the voluntary repatriation of Somalia nationals living in Dadaab.  Both governments also agreed to form a repatriation commission to coordinate the return of the refugees.  This repatriation effort was in response to an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and belief that Al-Shabaab, the militant group responsible for the attack, was using Dadaab to recruit new members.  

In 2014, the UNHCR assisted 3,562 refugees originating from Somalia to resettlement from Kenya.  Slightly over 2,000 individuals returned to the Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayo districts in southern Somalia under the repatriation project.  Despite these government endorsed repatriation schemes, the majority of the returnees have instead repatriated independently.  By February 2014, around 80,000 to 100,000 residents had voluntarily repatriated to Somalia, significantly decreasing the base's population.  

Following the Garissa University College attack in April 2015, which resulted in 148 deaths, the Kenyan government asked the UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to a designated area in Somalia within three months.  The proposed closure was reportedly spurred by fear that Al-Shabaab was still recruiting members from Dadaab.  Some individuals reported that the anxiety caused by the Kenyan government repeatedly threatening to shut down the camps was enough to convince them to leave. Without job availability or reliable access to resources, greater opportunities existed for them outside of Dadaab.[33] Others questioned the government's rationale for closing the camps, dismissing the claims of terrorist elements as baseless and refusing to depart.  The three-month ultimatum passed without Dadaab being closed.  

The Federal Government of Somalia and UNHCR confirmed that the repatriation would continue to be voluntary in accordance with the tripartite agreement, and that eight districts in Somalia from where most of the individuals had come had officially been designated as safe for repatriation.  However, the Kenyan government has intermittently threatened to close down the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. In May 2016, it declared that it had already disbanded the local Department of Refugee Affairs as part of the move, citing national security interests as the primary reason behind the forced repatriations. The UNCHR regards the Kenyan authorities' unilateral declaration as irresponsible, and has sought to broker a deal to ensure that the complex remains open.  The threat of closure by the Kenyan government is believed to be a ploy on its part to leverage more foreign donations.  It also comes as the Somali federal authorities are challenging the Kenyan government at the International Court of Justice over demarcation of their respective territorial waters. 

last updated: 2019-12-30@19:12