Three main camps – Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera – make up the Dadaab refugee complex; the no man’s land lost in between Kenya and Somalia where I spent most of my childhood.
I was just 10 years old when my family fled the civil war in Somalia and settled there in 1999. What was meant to be a temporary move turned out to be permanent. Dadaab became my home-away-from-home.
Then, six years ago, I left, returning to Somalia to take a job.
In the years since, the Somali-based militant group al-Shabab became a bigger threat to regional security; US President Donald Trump launched a travel ban preventing Somali refugees (and others) from entering the United States; Kenya announced plans to close Dadaab; some aid groups began to withdraw – and life for people inside Dadaab has not been the same.
Located about 100 kilometres from the border with Somalia, Dadaab was set up in 1991 to host some 90,000 Somali refugees fleeing the civil war. But with an influx of new arrivals escaping famine in Somalia in 2011, the sprawling settlement became, for a while, the largest refugee complex in the world, hosting more than half a million people. Best estimates for the size of the current population are around half that number.
Somalis aren’t alone; other refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda were also there with me – all displaced by war. Today, it is also home to South Sudanese, Rwandans, Burundians, and Eritreans.
Last summer, while training young refugee journalists on digital storytelling in Dadaab, I had the privilege of interacting with the community – my former friends and schoolmates.
Dadaab doesn’t feel like a collection of camps anymore. It has evolved into a vibrant city with markets, hospitals, cinemas, and private schools. New communities have formed; to outsiders, they may just be refugees, but to me these are people with dreams and talents.
But many things that have happened, have also made life harder. Almost every family in Dadaab, I soon realised, had been affected, directly or indirectly, by the US travel ban. The United States is the main destination for refugees from Dadaab, including those with critical medical conditions who cannot get treatment in the camps. Remittances sent back by those resettled in the United States are also a lifeline for families and businesses in Dadaab.
In earlier years, refugees would do their pre-travel shopping in the camps, spending money that would, in turn, support the local economy; but that doesn’t happen any longer. Now, no one is certain when they might travel; people shop less, and this has slowed down local businesses that rely on the movement of refugees.
Refugees here have to pass through an exhaustive UN identification and screening process even before similar screenings and interviews in resettlement countries. Some wait almost 10 years before getting resettled, and most lose hope along the way, including some of the most vulnerable – survivors of sexual violence, and others with special protection needs.
As a result of the desperation, I was told that smugglers are now taking advantage of the situation and attracting young people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe through Libya. While some succeed, more end up in captivity. I met the mother of a 19-year-old man who is now being held in a detention centre in Libya. She is fundraising to try to come up with the $10,000 being demanded for his release.
The Kenyan government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, manage Dadaab with support from international NGOs, including Save the Children, the Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, and others.
In May 2016 – a year after al-Shabab attacked Garissa University College and killed 148 people – the Kenyan government announced the closure of the complex, accusing refugees of harbouring terrorists amid concerns over Dadaab’s large Somali population and proximity to the porous border.
Before Dadaab was unfairly scapegoated, business was booming, goods were flowing from all parts of the country, and both refugees and the host community enjoyed a smooth economic relationship. But due to the uncertainty of its future, many Kenyan traders stopped sending goods to shopkeepers in Dadaab. As a result, refugees have lost a lot of money and are now facing pressure to pay whatever credit they owe to Kenyan traders.
It was more than just escaping the camps; it was a journey to reclaim my lost identity.
Mama Amina, a Somali refugee, runs a clothes shop in Dadaab and used to purchase goods from not only Nairobi but as far away as Dubai using Hawala and M-Pesa money transfer services.
“It has become extremely difficult to convince my business partners to lend me anything now. I have lost a lot since the news of the closure broke out,” she told me. “This means I can no longer buy extra food and pay for my children’s private school. I don’t want to just depend on food handouts from the UN.”
Even though a Kenyan High Court blocked the closure of Dadaab, and repatriation to Somalia remains only voluntary, refugees still feel pressure from the government. To make sure refugees return with safety and dignity, UNHCR is overseeing a voluntary repatriation programme. More than 80,000 Somali refugees have returned home since it began in December 2014.
Many others, like me, return home spontaneously without going through any formal repatriation programme.
I went back to Somalia in 2013 after I completed distance learning through a college in Nairobi. I had received an offer to work with the ministry of education in Mogadishu – a rare chance to escape the open prison I grew up in and return to my motherland for the first time in 15 years.
It was a turning point in my life. I knew I was taking a risk, but staying in the camp was not a good option either. It was more than just escaping the camps; it was a journey to reclaim my lost identity.
Third generation refugees
At the beginning, everything in the camps was improvised, including my schooling. The walls of the classrooms were made from flattened oil tins and the perimeter was fenced with thorny branches cut from the nearby bush. Now, the schools are made up of concrete blocks.
Although we had our own languages and cultures growing up, all children in Dadaab were taught in the Kenyan curriculum and had to study the history and politics of our host country.
However, they wouldn’t allow us to leave the camps and actually see the country we were being forced to learn about. Many of us did not know where we belonged.
At least I knew I was born in Somalia. But what of the tens of thousands born in Dadaab by parents who were also born there? These third generation refugees have no identity or permanent home.
Still, Dadaab was relatively peaceful, and at night we played under the moonlight without any fear.
But all that changed dramatically in 2011 when Kenyan forces invaded Somalia to fight al-Shabab. The extremists retaliated, with Kenyan security forces at Dadaab among the first targets. Innocent refugees were also scapegoated by the Kenyan authorities as police cracked down on the camps in an attempt to flush out “bad elements”.
As a young journalist with little resources, I started reporting on the security situation and the plight of fellow refugees.
But I felt threatened because of my work. On the one hand, I was afraid of the Kenyan police who treated refugees suspiciously and, on the other, I was afraid of al-Shabab who were also targeting community leaders. I had to find a way out of Dadaab, which, two years later, I did.
Freedom and dignity
In 2011, Dadaab was a humanitarian hub. But after the kidnapping of two MSF staff in October 2011 and a string of al-Shabab attacks, some aid agencies withdrew completely from the camps while others scaled down their services because of shrinking humanitarian funding.
During my time in Dadaab, we used to receive food rations every two weeks from the World Food Programme, but now refugees say they have to wait a whole month until they get some.
In recent years food rations have been reduced dramatically due to other crises, including South Sudan and Syria. Now, some families miss meals and children go to school hungry.
In Dadaab’s early years, the Kenyan authorities didn’t have a big presence in the camps. Now, the ministry of interior has a permanent office, the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, or RAS, tasked with managing the complex.
The Kenyan government isn’t currently registering new arrivals, which has left over 10,000 undocumented people waiting in limbo. These refugees depend on the generosity of others who share the little they have, including space in overcrowded shelters.
The donor community is tired of feeding more refugees, and the refugees themselves are tired of waiting for handouts.
Some of the undocumented refugees were repatriated to Somalia but had to flee again after getting caught up in violence. Idil, a mother of five, returned to Mogadishu in 2017, but was forced back to Dadaab.
“I was in the market when the October 14 truck bomb explosion happened,” she told me, referring to the 2017 Mogadishu attack by al-Shabab that claimed 587 lives. “I took cover in a stranger’s house, but my friend [who was also from Dadaab] died in the attack. I decided that day to just go back to the camp for the safety of my children.”
Refugees here need freedom and dignity to earn a decent living, but most feel abandoned and forgotten. Even after living in Kenya for almost three decades, the law doesn’t allow them to work or live outside the camps.
The camp model is expensive to sustain. The donor community is tired of feeding more refugees, and the refugees themselves are tired of waiting for handouts. But people continue arriving to this day.