Dadaab in Kenya is the world’s largest refugee camp. With more than 350,000 people — the population of New Orleans proper — it’s more like a little city.
But it quickly differs from one. The camp was established more than 20 years ago when Somalis fled war in their country. Its population swelled in 2011 due to the drought in East Africa.
The refugees are completely dependent on the Kenyan government and international relief organizations for food, shelter, water and sanitation. It takes 9,300 metric tons of food per month at a cost of $9.6 million to feed them, according to the U.N. World Food Program, which had to reduce rations recently after shortfalls in funding.
Located in eastern Kenya, about 60 miles from the Somali border, the camp is also under threat of being closed. It’s near the town of Garissa, where al-Shabab militants shot and killed dozens of students at a university in April.
This attack and others committed by the Somali-based al-Shabab terrorist group have led to repeated calls for closing the camp, which, according to aid organizations, would be a disaster.
“Abruptly closing the Dadaab camps and forcing refugees back to Somalia would have extreme humanitarian and practical consequences, and would be a breach of Kenya’s international obligations,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl told reporters in April.
The government of Kenya should instead strengthen law enforcement at Dadaab and along the border to prevent armed militants from entering, she said.
The issue of security in the region is expected to come up during President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on July 25 and 26.
The deteriorating security situation caused Doctors Without Borders to close two clinics in one of the camps and remove 42 of its staff in May. “These were nurses, clinical officers and doctors,” said Charles Gaudry, head of mission in Kenya for Doctors Without Borders. “It has been a big challenge to reorganize the work and to maintain as much as we can the services that we’re able to provide there.”
The remaining medical sites, including a hospital and two clinics, are operated by about 700 members of its local staff and trained refugees, he said. There are no current plans to reopen the two other clinics.
Somalia, Kenya and the U.N. refugee agency signed an agreement in 2013 to help Somali refugees voluntarily move back home. Some refugees say they want to return, but only when Somalia is peaceful and stable, said the International Rescue Committee’s Sharon Waxman in a GlobalPost article.
Others, who were born in the camp, have never been to Somalia and might not want to resettle there, said Gaudry. About 3,000 refugees have volunteered to return home with their travel expenses covered, and the number is slowly increasing even though it’s still a nominal amount, he said.
With the global war on terrorism and the unstable situation in Somalia, he continued, “there’s constant and increasing pressure on the people living in Dadaab — on one side by the Kenyan government that portrays them as a security threat to the country, and by the armed groups from Somalia who are pushing on the refugees on the other side.”
In an effort to speed departures and eventually close the camp, the Kenyan government no longer allows the building of permanent mud-brick structures. Instead, it restricts new structures to wooden frames with iron sheet roofing and plastic sheeting walls to create less of an enticement for people to stay in the camp long-term, Gaudry explained.
“It’s life on standby for many people, including youth,” he said. Children have access to primary education, but only a few can go to secondary school. And job opportunities are available to even fewer. With refugees required to get permits to travel outside of the camp, “it is kind of an open-air prison.”
Secretary of State John Kerry described the limited prospects of the younger generation of refugees last month after speaking with them via video link while he was traveling in Nairobi, Kenya.
“They told me how they dream of attending university and pursuing careers in medicine, politics and human rights. But they also shared their fears that they would end up trapped and jobless, and that all their striving would be in vain. We cannot let that happen,” he said on World Refugee Day on June 18.
The entrenched inhabitants have worked out a daily routine. They have a camel market, gym and classes for bead-making. Watch some of their videos:
Tour the camel market in the Dagahaley camp, where camels can cost up to $800. Video by FilmAid
One of the refugees trained other women in the art of beadwork. Video by FilmAid
Another refugee who entered the camp at age 3 later started its only gym. Video by FilmAid
See more of the Dadaab refugees’ stories.