One hundred forty thousand people: That’s the population of the world’s largest refugee camp. Rows of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents stretching as far as the eye can see, children playing in dirty water, women cooking outside their plastic homes. But we are not in Jordan, and they are not Syrian refugees. We are in Kenya, and those homeless thousands are Somali.
Some refugees arrived recently, fleeing violence and drought, but the large majority have been here for more than two decades. The camp, Dadaab, is so big — it has as many inhabitants as Pasadena, California — that it has become a de facto city, with police stations, graveyards, bus stations and small businesses.
Dadaab was set up in 1992 to host those fleeing Somalia’s bloody civil war, but new camps had to open in 2011 after another wave of Somalis arrived escaping drought. There is so much focus on the European refugee crisis these days that news consumers could be forgiven for thinking the entire world dreams of a new life in Berlin. But East Africa alone is host to 3 million refugees (three times as many as the European Union).
The second-largest refugee camp in the world, home to about 120,000 Somalis, is also in Kenya.
The years in limbo have not made things easier. Dadaab is filled to the brim, and living conditions are harsh: Malnutrition, lack of education and poor health care are only a few of the issues that plague its residents. And then there’s the security threat. Many refugees found themselves stigmatized following the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attacks by Al-Shabab, the Somali-based militant group. After last year’s attack on Garissa University, in which 148 students died, the Kenyan government said all Somalis in the country, many of whom live in Nairobi, had to return to the camps. The proposal was met with shock by everyone from UNHCR to partner countries and eventually dropped. “The camps are seen as hotbeds of terrorism, but it’s completely not the case,” says Duke Mwancha, UNHCR’s Kenya spokesman. “They are run by the government and closely monitored by the police.” (The Kenyan and Somali governments did not respond to requests for comment.)
The UNHCR has begun a voluntary repatriation program to 13 areas in Somalia that are considered safe. Since December, 6,100 refugees have returned home. But with Somalia unlikely to become safe and prosperous in the near future, hundreds of thousands of Somalis remain stuck in a country that regards them with growing suspicion.
A better solution would be to let the refugees work and integrate, says David Kang’ethe, country director of the Danish Refugee Council in Kenya. According to Kang’ethe, Somalis are known for trade skills, and the camps represent a significant source of income and jobs. The Dadaab market, for example, is much larger than the one outside the camp, and local Kenyans often provide milk and meat to it.
For now, however, the refugees only shot at prosperity is a long one: for their country to regain stability. As the Somali proverb goes, “The best bed that a man can sleep on is peace.”
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