For weeks, a warship had rained shells on the city sending hundreds of refugees scurrying along the road to Dadaab. There they met the advancing Kenyans, who treated the fleeing civilians as though they were members of al-Shabaab. Traumatized refugees limped into the camps with desperate stories of being stripped, robbed, and gang-raped by their supposed liberators, to whom they had come seeking protection.
The shelling was horrendous. The refugees spoke of “fire that rained from the sky”. One man had shards of orange-coloured shrapnel still lodged in his head: he was the lucky member of this family. He had spent hours collecting the shreds of his two-year-old girl, his wife and their newborn daughter from the rubble of their home in order to give them a proper burial. Another returned home to find a metre-wide crater in the living room and burned corpses scattered all over the house. “Shells from Kenya”, one said.
“No, French”, said another. Intelligence sources would later confirm that both were correct.
“The say the ships were American, firing at us, but it is all the same to me,” one man ruminated slowly when he arrived in Dadaab. A journey that had taken the Kenyan military one year he had walked in two weeks, barely sleeping. His sandals were wafer thin.
I could have started this with a quote from many different places. But the above, from City of Thorns, left me speechless and dumbstruck. I’ve only recently read it, but with our current discussions about immigration and refugees, this has to be spread. There’s no joy; there’s no relief in being a refugee. That’s the point. These are people who become stuck, stateless, and hopeless. Stripped of all that gave them life, subsisting in camps while on waiting lists to be mercifully plucked from the ultimate struggle. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in north-eastern Kenya, was so awful that people return to Somalia, not because life was better at home, but because the camp became unbearable. We cannot turn a blind eye to this problem, the indifference we show is a condemnation to these people.
Dadaab is in north-eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border. The camps are in arid brushland, where the ground is hard and dusty, and nothing much grows except for thin thorny trees. All of this might be bearable except that the temperature consistently tops 40 degrees Celsius year-round, and the UN-provided accommodation is a simple tent. These are tough conditions, without considering the transient nature of the camp, the insufficient rations, and the insufficiency of basic services.
Kenya had succeeded in constructing an official narrative about the camp, one that had an ending. That narrative arc cast a cruel shadow; daily life simply got harder.
The Kenyan government has unequivocally stated it wants to close the camp, to send people back to Somalia. The same Somalia that is frequently hit with terrorist attacks; where al-Shabaab is still deeply entrenched. The Kenyan government cares so little for the prosperity of those in the camp that they are wilfully pushing refugees back into a war-zone. They first made the camp intolerable, but many people had no money and no way to get home, so they stayed. Now the ugly spectre of closing the camp has been floated again, and has thankfully been held off on humanitarian grounds, at least for the time being. But those humanitarian grounds haven’t done much to put an end to the struggle for survival in the camp. I don’t wish to paint this as an horrific time in the camp’s history - for it has been worse - but that alone does not make the current state of the camp acceptable.
The original Dadaab camps of Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo were constructed by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in 1992. The camps were built in response to the fall of the government of Mohamed Siad Barre in early 1991, when Somalia descended into civil war, and ultimately into anarchy. I won’t recount the entire history of the instability in Somalia, but Dadaab’s history continues to echo the civil war. It is the record of a failed state, of al-Shabaab’s rise to prominence, and it is a record of a country slowly clawing its way back to functionality. As instability, danger, and famine grow, Dadaab grows. As these dangers lessen, Dadaab shrinks. The camp is an echo of the Horn.
Although Dadaab has always been a serious concern within the international community, it was with the widespread famine of 2011 that it came to prominence. Well past capacity, and with over a thousand people arriving every day, Dadaab briefly became the focus of international aid.
At the beginning of 2013, the UNHRC budget was one third of what it had been in 2011 during the emergency. The needs were around $130m. The budget was $35m. All UNHCR’s spare funds were being eaten by the Syrian crisis.
We find disasters to be attractive money-spinners. We send aid, we volunteer, and we are proud of our compassion. But when the disaster is over, the aid slowly dries up. A near brush with absolute famine isn’t sexy. Preventing suffering doesn’t make headlines, not in the way responding to suffering does. We have marvelled in the recent downfall of Syria, and the refugee migration. We have collectively agreed it is awful, and yet our extended hand does not reach far enough.
The current international crisis precipitated by the Syrian Civil War has placed nearly 500,000 people into refugee camps, spread across the Middle East and into Europe. At its peak in 2011, Dadaab’s official population was nearing 480,000, in just one place. That’s half a million people registered in Dadaab, officially unable to integrate into Kenyan society, and on fear of death, unable to return home. It’s worth bearing in mind this was the registered population, but due to poor resources, processing new arrivals was slow. Unofficial counts put the population closer to 700,000 around this time.
Refugee camps across the world are chronically run on a budget that is less than half of their required funding. This trend means that a massive surge in population at Dadaab would once again push the UNHCR far beyond their limit. Camps not only in East Africa, but in Yemen and Jordan, consistently report funding at around 40-50% of the required amount. It is shameful that in our time of prosperity, where economic growth is the norm, that many are still struggling to simply survive.
Life in the camp was becoming too difficult; he was ready to take his chances back home, regardless of the threat to his life.
One story told in City of Thorns is that of Guled, a young man who had been captured by al-Shabaab as a child living in Mogadishu. He managed to escape, and fled to Dadaab. For many years he knew the camp was no good, but he feared his past catching up with him if he were to return to Mogadishu. So when, at the end of 2013, he considered the inconsiderable, it was clear the camp had entered a new age. This was in the immediate aftermath of the Westgate Shopping Centre attack in Nairobi. Carried out by al-Shabaab, the devastating attack killed 67 people. And while Kenyans mourned, life in the camp became even more difficult. al-Shabaab is largely a Somali organisation, and as such the camps at Dadaab were seen as linked to al-Shabaab, all ethnic Somalis were discriminated against; life became even harder.
With a current official population sitting around 250,000, Dadaab is now shrinking. Since the recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo many residents of Dadaab see hope at home, and are more optimistic for the future than they have been in many years.
A sentiment expressed by many queuing to be processed under Dadaab’s “voluntary return” scheme, echoed here by Anab Shire, is that they “elected the president of the people, we can return now, hope has returned". Anab, like many others, stood in the 40 degree heat for hours in order to be processed, handed her leavers stipend (of around $400), all with her three sons clinging to her hijab.
Fuelling this hope further is al-Shabaab, no longer ruling unilaterally over Mogadishu, and while the group does still control the southern part of Somalia, they are far from the height of their powers.
In spite of these improvements Somalia is still fragile, the UN has issued a new warning suggesting that more than half of Somalia’s population is vulnerable to famine in the coming year, and during this time we could quickly see the population in Dadaab skyrocket as people with no other options look to their last resort of refuge.
The history of the camp is fraught with problems: political, financial, and medical. The future of the camp, and its hundreds of thousands of residents, is up in the air. It depends on Kenyan co-operation, as much as it depends on renewed international aid efforts, and crucially on the advancements made by Somalia’s new government in continuing to show progress, enticing refugees to come home, and proving to the rest that home is safe.
We don’t know what the future holds, but right now we must help.
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