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Life on the margins of Dadaab

A mother showing her token in Kambioos, Dadaab
(Moulid Hujale/IRIN)

For new arrivals to the world’s largest refugee complex, in eastern Kenya, life is particularly difficult.

In October 2011, when thousands of people were fleeing famine and conflict in Somalia, Kenyan authorities halted the registration of refugees arriving in Dadaab, citing deteriorating security conditions. Some 4,500 Somalis have since come to the complex.

“We get access to food rations but what we receive is never enough, and sometimes we don’t get any,” Saney Farah, 39, an unregistered asylum-seeker who arrived at Dadaab’s Ifo camp about three months ago, told IRIN. “During the first four weeks of my arrival, I did not receive any food. Whenever I went to the distribution centre I was told that my token serial number was not in the manifest.”

When new refugees reach Dadaab, they stay with fellow refugees in the outskirts of the complex. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) then takes their details and provides them with a waiting card with which they can access food rations and health care. The refugee ration card is only issued after full registration with Kenya's Department of Refugee Affairs entitling the refugees to shelter and other assistance.

Those who do not have waiting cards, such as Kadija Aden, a mother of four, face significant problems. “I never thought it would be so difficult here in Dadaab. We are caught between scorching sun and flooding rain under tents that prevent none of them,” said Kadija at the Kambioos extension camp.

“I feel less important since I am not fully registered and I am worried for the future of my children.”

Unregistered asylum-seekers such as Kadija often miss out on essential services such as vaccination as they have mingled among other refugees in the complex.

Regarding the resumption of registration, Emmanuel Nyabera, the UNHCR spokesperson in Kenya, said: “The commissioner of refugee affairs indicated about two weeks ago that registration will start soon but we are yet to get a date.”


In a March report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Kenyan government to re-open refugee reception centres in the border town of Liboi, which were closed in 2007, to ensure that newly-arriving refugees are screened for security purposes and safely transported to Dadaab, instead of suspending registration or encouraging refugees to return to Somalia.

The government has been calling for the return of Somali refugees to areas in Somalia under the control of Kenyan defence forces there, citing security and environmental concerns, noted the HRW report, which said Somalia remains unsafe for such returns.

The Kenyan army has since October 2011 been engaged in an intervention in Somalia targeting Al-Shabab militants blamed for a series of cross-border attacks and abductions as well as grenade explosions in Dadaab.

Originally intended for 90,000 people, the Dadaab complex now hosts more than 463,000 refugees with chronic overcrowding, risk of disease and seasonal floods among the challenges, according to UNHCR.

Attacks in Dadaab

While the high refugee numbers put pressure on the complex, notes a March report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has led to a sharp rise in attacks by Al-Shabab sympathizers in Dadaab, prompting a harsh response and widespread allegations of abuse by the Kenyan police

“The insecurity has placed several constraints on the operations of NGOs in the complex, reducing assistance to life-saving services. Sexual violence has become endemic, and police abuse and inaction commonplace and resented by the refugees,” said the report which called for a coordinated response from UNHCR, the Kenyan government and the international community “to prevent this volatile stew from erupting into deadly violence”.

“Refugee frustration and fear of an abusive police presence could lead to the radicalization of the refugee population, which would be an unfortunate consequence for both refugees and Kenyans,” added the report.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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