By Cynthia Anderson
The Somali Americans I know don’t talk much about Dadaab, the Kenyan refugee camp where many lived for years. Their memories are not happy ones. As a community, they are firmly forward-looking.
That changed after the Kenyan government announced on May 11 that it will close the camp, which is home to 330,000 Somali refugees, within the year. Since then, I’ve heard more first-hand accounts of hardship in Dadaab than in 18 months of work on the book I’m writing about Somali immigration.
The stories about Dadaab are harrowing, yet virtually to a person there is agreement that the camp should remain open because no ready alternatives exist for its inhabitants.
I heard about a perilous two-week journey a mother made from Somalia to Dadaab by bus, truck, and finally on foot with five children, one who died of dehydration on the way and another who died after the family arrived in the camp. I was told of sexual assaults, overcrowding, and outbreaks of cholera—and learned that the word “dadaab” means hard rock in the local dialect.
There was shock at the announcement—though less than there would have been if Kenya had not been threatening to close Dadaab for years—as well as resignation and even some sympathy for Kenya, which receives international assistance to run the camp but foots many costs on its own. Mostly people voiced concern for friends and family members who still live there.
Dadaab should not close. Somalia continues to be too unstable and impoverished to absorb the refugees without risking a humanitarian crisis; the conditions that drove the refugees’ flight have not changed substantially and are now compounded by an ongoing drought. Other African nations already hold significant refugee populations, and existing resettlement programs in Africa and abroad cannot realistically take on an additional third of a million people and relocate them in the span of a year.
Among Somalis, there’s skepticism of the Kenyan government’s current claim that it’s closing Dadaab because it provides haven for al-Shabab and a conduit for weapons. Some point to financial considerations as the primary driver; indeed, when Kenya threatened previously to shut down the camp, aid agencies upped their funding and Dadaab remained open.
But even if security motivates the move, Kenya’s permeable borders mean closing the camp likely will not prevent al-Shabab from entering the country. And if the refugees are repatriated to Somalia, the move could result in an increase in extremism in the region. Sixty percent of Dadaab’s inhabitants are under 18; forced to leave Kenya, without the basic securities of shelter and food, they would be ready targets for al-Shabab recruitment.
The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab has been in operation 25 years. A whole generation born there has grown to adulthood, and some 13-year-olds who arrived when the camp first opened are now grandparents. The question of whether places like Dadaab should be lifelong residences for refugees warrants consideration. But in the absence of viable alternatives for the camp’s inhabitants, the question remains academic.
Kenya should reconstitute its recently disbanded department of refugee affairs and redirect funds set aside for the dismantlement process to enhance safety in Dadaab. And until the refugees can be resettled elsewhere, the global community should step up to support Kenya in providing food, shelter, and medical care.
If the refugees do wind up in Somalia, here’s what the U.S. and other nations shouldn’t do: get involved militarily in the clan-based conflicts that inevitably will result from repatriation. In the early 90s, during the end stages of Somali President Siad Barre’s rule, the government’s arming of factions with internationally supplied weapons triggered the Somali refugee crisis in the first place.
The “hard rock” of Dadaab that the 330,000 refugees call home is far from ideal, but until there are other options that ensure security and stability, it must remain open.
Cynthia Anderson is a cross-genre writer who has published work in The Hill, Huffington Post, The Miami Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Magazine, msnbc.com, and elsewhere. Her short-story collection River Talk was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014.
[Photo courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development]