Denis Alma Kuindje’s job is to protect the rights of the nearly 240,000 people who live in what, until recently, was the largest refugee camp in the world. But what does that mean? As near as I could tell, after following Kuindje for five days in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, it means embracing a kind of chaos.
Kuindje, F07, is a senior protection coordinator with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2015, he began working in Dadaab, where he oversees a staff of about seventy-five. The camp was created in 1991 to house tens of thousands of people fleeing the atrocities of the civil war in nearby Somalia. Of course, calling Dadaab a refugee “camp” is misleading. It’s more like a city, or rather a collection of villages. Located near the eastern border that Kenya shares with Somalia, it was supposed to have been a temporary solution to a temporary refugee crisis, but more than twenty-five years after it opened, Dadaab is the only home that many of its people have ever known—some of the original residents now live there with children and grandchildren who were born in the camp. There are shops and schools and health centers. There are black markets and gangs and violence. In other words, a city—yet one where no one actually wants to live. Nearly everyone I spoke with told me that they longed to leave Dadaab and start over somewhere else. But where?
A few thousand camp residents, at most, are able to resettle each year in North America, Europe, and Australia. That’s a drop in an ocean of need. Kenya, meanwhile, has resisted allowing Somali refugees to live anywhere in the country other than the camp because, it has said, the refugees pose a security threat. For many Dadaab residents, then, the only legal alternative to the camp is to go back to Somalia, a country still overwhelmed by war and the threat of famine. So rather than being on the move, these refugees are stuck where they are—and now Kenya is threatening to close even this refuge, claiming that it is being used as an organizing base by Somali terrorists.
Across the globe, as the residents of Dadaab have come to learn, no one seems to want the people fleeing war, persecution, hunger, and violence in their homelands. So where are these people to go? It’s a question the world is trying to answer in real time, often with heartbreaking results. Some refugees have set out in rickety boats for Europe. Others have simply started walking, their children in tow, their possessions strapped to their back, and their destination uncertain. Against this backdrop, and for as long as the camp stays open, someone has got to look after the people in Dadaab.
One morning in March, Kuindje and I sat in the back of an air-conditioned SUV that bumped through the refugee camp. Kuindje, who is forty-seven, taught law and worked at the national human rights commission in his native Cameroon before joining the U.N., where he helped determine the refugee status of people fleeing the Rwandan genocide and the violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. “From morning to evening I was interviewing refugees,” he recalled. Since then, he has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Algeria, Senegal, Niger, and Switzerland.
In Dadaab, Kuindje works six days a week, drinking lots of coffee and eating the beignets that his wife makes and freezes for him back home in Nairobi. Every six weeks, he gets five days of R&R to visit her and their three young children. Kuindje said he was in Dadaab to help protect refugees’ rights. But as I watched him gazing out the window, I began to think that keeping everything together in this time and place of desperation—projecting hope in what just may be a hopeless situation—is what Kuindje’s job is really all about.
We came to a stop at a field office in the camp, and Kuindje got out of his vehicle to check on colleagues at the repatriation desk, the place where refugees who want to go home start the process. Outside the office, about one hundred refugees circled around him in the hot sun to voice complaints: they were being forced to move from one part of Dadaab to another, they had not received the relocation assistance they’d been promised, the help desk was not fully staffed. “Ask them to be patient,” Kuindje said in English to a colleague, who translated to Somali. “Someone will come here. We will make sure it happens.” Kuindje remained composed amid the clamor, seeming to listen with his full attention yet also making it clear he could not stay. “I’ll follow up,” he said, heading to the SUV. As the vehicle pulled back onto the dusty road, he was already on his mobile phone. “We need to send someone.”
The creation of the Dadaab refugee camp was the indirect result of armed opposition groups overthrowing the Somali government in 1991. The fighting drove tens of thousands of people out of the country and into Kenya. In accordance with international law, Kenyan authorities worked with the UNHCR to establish a refugee camp in the town of Dadaab, then a sleepy settlement in a region of seminomadic herders located about fifty miles from the Somali border. The complex is managed by the UNHCR with the help of partner agencies like the World Food Program, which coordinates rations.
Dadaab was initially designed to provide temporary housing for ninety thousand refugees, but its original residents and their children were joined in 2011 by 130,000 more people fleeing widespread drought in Somalia. At times, as many as one thousand Somalis a day arrived malnourished and weak. The complex expanded, eventually covering about twenty square miles of red sand.
To get to Dadaab, aid workers take the one-hour flight from Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. A thirty-six-seat U.N. plane makes the trip on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Donor countries such as the United States, Sweden, and Norway provide the funding for the camp, but never as much as the U.N. says it needs. As of October, for instance, the U.N. had received only 29 percent of the $231 million budget it requested for Kenya operations this year. Each family in Dadaab is supposed to receive a monthly distribution of grains, beans, oil, and enriched flour, and a cash transfer for buying food in local markets, but those rations had been cut in half when I visited because of insufficient funding.
The threat of the camp closing is ever-present, and a sense of impermanence hangs over the place. Dadaab residents live in tents made of thorn tree branches covered in plastic sheeting. A U.N. effort to build more durable mud-brick homes was halted by Kenyan authorities because only temporary housing is allowed. When new asylum seekers arrive, they are supposed to be registered and fingerprinted in order to receive ration cards and aid. Kenya wasn’t doing this when I visited, however, apparently because the government didn’t want to acknowledge that new people were arriving. Which may explain the 3,750 or so people that the U.N. said were living unregistered in Dadaab in June. Kuindje assured me that his team was tracking the newcomers and making sure the most vulnerable received assistance.
Over the years, Dadaab has been plagued by overcrowding, disease, and seasonal floods. And while people come to the camp to flee war and hunger, the threat of violence and instability continues to hover over their existence. Domestic violence, rape, and coerced sex for money are constant concerns, as are early marriage, suicide, and drug abuse. Gunmen, meanwhile, have abducted six aid workers over the past six years—eventually releasing all of them unharmed. U.N. staff are kept under curfew in a compound encircled by high walls and razor wire, and secured by armed guards. Most aid workers don’t venture into the camps without armed police escort.
Despite the menace that is sometimes in the air, Dadaab in many ways resembles a normal set of villages, with a surprisingly bustling economy. Aided by loans from friends and family in other parts of the world, some refugees have built coffee shops, restaurants, and stores that sell everything from shampoo and sandals to pasta and fresh tomatoes. Many residents sell the grains and beans they receive as rations in order to buy foods they prefer or to pay for other necessities. Then there’s the black market fed by cartels that smuggle in sugar and other goods from Somalia. Some Dadaab residents even own motorcycles or cars, although they are barred from traveling outside the camp unless they’ve been granted special permission.
Of course, the typical resident of the camp doesn’t run a small business. Life for most of Dadaab’s refugees can be pretty bleak. Women walk for hours daily to gather firewood, traveling in groups because of the fear of rape. One woman told me that latrines were overflowing throughout the camp, so people relieved themselves in the fields, heightening the threat of a cholera outbreak like the one that killed ten Dadaab residents in 2015. (Just weeks after my visit, another cholera outbreak left three residents dead and more than five hundred sick.)
As difficult as the conditions in Dadaab can be, for its residents the camp at least provides some semblance of safety, and education for their kids. Which is why the constant threat of its closure can be so stressful for the people who live there. One reason that Dadaab is no longer the largest refugee complex in the world is because Kenya has set a deadline to close it. Although Amnesty International has said that there’s little evidence that the camp serves as a base for terrorist attacks linked to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, and although Kenya’s high court ruled in February that the planned closure is unconstitutional, the government presses on for closing Dadaab, even as it says it will fulfill its international obligations to refugees. The UNHCR shut down one of Dadaab’s five camps earlier this year, and another is scheduled to be closed in March. Kuindje said that more than one hundred thousand people were cleared from Dadaab’s rolls in the first eighteen months he worked in the camp, a reduction he said was attributable to both residents returning to Somalia and a verification process.
All of which brings us, inevitably, back to this question: If Kenya does close Dadaab, where will the people who live there go? Resettlement options, always thin, seem to be further dwindling of late. In the United States, President Trump signed an executive order in January that temporarily barred people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Somalia, from entering the country, and that halted all refugee resettlement for 120 days. (The policy was revised after court challenges, and in October refugee admissions were permitted to resume, but with enhanced screening.) The Trump administration also announced in September that it would allow only forty-five thousand refugees to be resettled in the U.S. in the coming year, the lowest number in decades. Meanwhile, many European countries have fortified their borders with fences and guards to prevent unauthorized entry after more than a million migrants and refugees streamed into the continent in 2015. And several European Union countries—including Germany, which famously welcomed many refugees earlier in the migration crisis—declared this year that they would start returning some asylum seekers to Greece.
In 2016, some 33,000 Dadaab residents returned to Somalia, apparently deciding that they had a better chance in a country ravaged by war, drought, and famine than in a refugee camp with steep cuts in food rations and operating budgets.
Whether or not Kenya is able to completely shut down Dadaab, changes in the camp are already having an effect. In 2016, some thirty-three thousand Dadaab residents returned to Somalia, apparently deciding that they had a better chance in a country ravaged by war, drought, and famine than in a refugee camp with steep cuts in food rations and operating budgets. In that context, I asked Kuindje just how voluntary the decision to return is. “That’s a tricky question,” he said. He pointed out that the U.N. is not promoting repatriation, but will assist those who choose freely to return to certain regions of Somalia that are deemed safe.
For now, many remain in the camp. One morning, I met Saludo Mukter, a thirty-year-old mother who sat in the shade of an acacia tree nursing her baby. She told me that each day she is able to cook just a single meal of rationed grains and beans. Her six children had to be treated for malnutrition, she said, even though she washes other women’s clothes to earn money to occasionally buy meat. Her children wake up asking for spaghetti and rice, she said, but “I have nothing to give but sweet words.”
The truth is that camps aren’t a good solution to the refugee crisis and the UNHCR knows it. That’s what Dania Khan, F12, told me when I met with her in Nairobi shortly before visiting Dadaab. We were at a café in the upscale Westgate Mall, the site of a 2013 attack by armed gunmen associated with al-Shabaab that left sixty-seven people dead. Khan, a U.N. protection officer who focuses on migration, was headed to Uganda the next day to organize a regional conference on Somalia and the refugee crisis. “There’s a new way of working at UNHCR,” she said. “It can’t stay like this.”
Camps are set up to be temporary, she said, but the wars that lead to them continue to rage, and displaced people get stuck in what was meant to be a short-term fix.
Of course, the best solution to refugee crises is prevention. Khan and Kuindje both told me that if the international community could address the root causes of conflicts, stop the flow of money and weapons that sustains them, and increase local people’s ability to cope with natural disasters, we wouldn’t see such massive waves of displacement.
Since none of that is likely to happen anytime soon, Khan said it’s important to begin questioning how we address the refugee challenge. Is it fair, for instance, that the nations bordering conflict zones shoulder more of the burden of assisting refugees? And are there smarter ways to help refugees rebuild their lives?
One new trend has been the move away from camps and toward giving dislocated people cash so that they can pay for their own food and lodging. Then there’s what’s happening in Uganda, where refugees can work, move freely, and even buy land, Khan told me.
Other innovations focus on jobs. In Jordan, which is currently home to about 650,000 Syrian refugees, special economic zones are starting to attract foreign investment and create employment for refugees. Britain, the European Union, and the World Bank, meanwhile, announced a plan last year to build industrial parks in Ethiopia, which hosts more than seven hundred thousand asylum seekers, mainly from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. Of the one hundred thousand jobs to be created in the industrial parks, thirty thousand will go to refugees.
If Khan is right that camps are not the solution, closing Dadaab might seem like a worthy goal. But the problem is what to do with the quarter-million people who currently live there. The primary solution being offered is for them to go back to Somalia.
One day, Kuindje’s SUV pulled into the Dadaab airstrip, where he was scheduled to meet with about two dozen refugees who had been chosen for a “go-and-see” trip to Somalia. These volunteers, some of whom hadn’t set foot in their homeland for decades, would spend five days checking out the conditions in Somalia. Then, during a series of meetings at the camp, they would tell people considering a move back exactly what they had seen. “Use this opportunity to ask all the questions the other refugees would want to ask,” Kuindje said, waiting as his words were translated over the whir of an airplane engine. “The drought is generating a lot of concern. People will ask you what the situation looks like.”
Some Dadaab residents believe that the visits are little more than propaganda meant to persuade them to leave. When I described this sentiment to Kuindje, however, he insisted that it was inaccurate and not the opinion of most of the camp’s residents. That may well be the case, but when I asked Mohamed Bishar whether refugees should be returning to Somalia, he said, “No. Capital No.” Bishar, who was nineteen, left Dadaab for Somalia with his aunt and uncle in the summer of 2016. Within weeks, he told me, al-Shabaab militants began pressuring him to join them. Believing that they would kill him if he refused, he returned to Dadaab alone, and he now was living with the family of a friend. He told me he had seen other boys from Dadaab conscripted into al-Shabaab while he was in Somalia, including one who was only seven. “People are being told a fairy story,” Bishar said of the push to return to Somalia. “They’re told it’s a safe place, you can continue your education. When you get there, you see a different reality.”
And yet, for several days each week, the waiting area near the airstrip is filled with families who have decided to go back. On a day when I visited, more than 550 refugees were there, pressing inked fingers onto their paperwork. The families were given $200 per person, as well as some food and water, to get them started in their new lives. Most were making the trip by bus, but the sixty or so headed to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, were flying on a U.N. airplane because the land route was deemed too dangerous.
“I’m happy to be going back to my homeland with a new president-elect,” Rodha Mohamood told me, referring to Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose election earlier this year has raised hopes for a more stable Somalia. Still, Mohamood said, she was leaving the camp mostly because the reduced rations had left her eight children hungry, and because President Trump’s refugee stance had dashed her hopes for resettlement.
As the refugees got ready for the journey to Somalia, I spoke with Ali Jumale, a twenty-two-year-old who had come to Dadaab alone at age fourteen. He told me that he had been separated from his relatives in the war and didn’t know if any were still alive. Now that he had finished school, the camps had little to offer him and he was willing to try his luck in Somalia. “There’s some hope with the new president that it might be peaceful and there’s a possibility of jobs,” he told me. He said he dreamed of being a schoolteacher or working with youth in his hometown. He wanted to help lead his country out of the chaos that has plagued it since before he was born.
When it was finally time to board the brightly painted buses that would take them across the border, Jumale and the others rushed in order to get a good seat, like vacationers going on a sightseeing tour. Watching, I wondered if some of the young men would be recruited by al-Shabaab, or if the families, perhaps encountering the same fighting and drought that had forced them to flee in the first place, would wind up returning to Dadaab. My face must have betrayed my thoughts. “They’re happy,” a bus driver said to me in English. “Nothing to be sad about.” And they were gone.
To comment on this story, please write to email@example.com.
For more about Dadaab, plus additional stories about how the Tufts community is responding to the international refugee crisis, please visit go.tufts.edu/refugees.