Tag: Dadaab

Life and opportunity in the world’s biggest refugee camp

An overview of part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)
An overview of part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)

Soon after dawn Bashir Bilal sat outside on his usual plastic jerry can surrounded by young girls and boys chanting Quranic verses.

Each child clutched a worn plank of wood instead of an exercise book, writing on it in Arabic script with ink made from charcoal and water.

In Somalia the Islamic madrassa is often the only education on offer, but here in the Dadaab refugee camps it is just the start. Later in the day the children are able to attend, for free, primary and even secondary school while scholarships are available for college education.

Uprooted and dispossessed, life as a refugee is tough. But for the Somalis who have for years, or even decades, called Dadaab home there are opportunities too.

Bilal (47) used to live in Afgoye, a breadbasket town 30 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu. When he came to Dadaab five years ago he found better schooling options than at home where fees were high and children would often spend their days helping out on the family farm.

“Children here in Dadaab have the privilege of better education,” said Bilal. “They will bring change in Somalia when they go back.”

Just when they will go back is contentious. Kenya’s government has hosted refugees from Somalia since 1991 when civil war tore the country apart. Since then Dadaab has grown into the world’s largest refugee settlement, with over 350 000 residents.

Camps seen as a security threat
Kenya now wants the camps shut down claiming they are a security threat used by members of al-Shabab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda branch, for recruitment, training and downtime.

Albert Kimathi, the area’s top government official who, as deputy county commissioner is responsible for security, called Dadaab “the breeding ground, the training ground” for al-Shabab. “They use the camps as safe havens,” he said.

“I’m not branding anyone a terrorist, but quite a number of these terrorists come from Somalia. These people are one and the same,” said Kimathi.

Hopes and dreams

People living in the camps find such allegations perplexing.

Yakub Abdi left the southern city of Kismayo in 2011 after al-Shabab gunmen accused his father of being a spy, and then executed both his parents. He hates and fears the militants and so volunteered to chair a neighbourhood watch group in one of Dadaab’s five camps.

“This is not the place they are recruiting,” said the 29-year old father of two. His 260 fellow volunteers in the Community Peace and Protection Team keep tabs on new arrivals to their camp, reporting anyone suspicious to police.

“Shabab are not here,” said Abdi, but he warned that the invisible, largely unprotected border just 80 kilometres to the east, meant they were not far away either.

Despite living in temporary shelters and barely subsisting on food handouts, Dadaab is not a place of universal misery and hopelessness.

“People think there’s no life in the camps, but there is life,” said Liban Mohamed, a 28-year old filmmaker from Kismayo, in southern Somalia. “There are problems here but there are also hopes and dreams.”

Mohamed’s dream is to be resettled in the US where his mother and siblings already live, and to continue making films. For others the dream is closer to home, and nearer to being realised.

Mohamed Osman is a trained medical officer who for the last 15 years has provided free consultations, affordable drugs and in-patient treatment at his private pharmacy. He left Somalia in 1992 seeking safety and prosperity and in Dadaab, his family and business have thrived.

“Children in Somalia have no hope,” said the 42-year old father of 12 children from two wives. “My children are learning here.” He has no desire to return to Somalia because “there is still fighting there”.

A short way from Osman’s pharmacy, along flooded and uneven dirt roads, the daily delivery of khat, a herb with a mildly narcotic effect when chewed, was unloaded.

A broker who runs four pick-ups piled high with 50-kilogramme sacks of khat into Dadaab every day said he sells out his entire stock without fail, making more than 30 000 shillings (280 euros) on each truck.

Traders deliver khat to the market at IFO main camp of the Dadaab refugee camp. (Pic: AFP)
Traders deliver khat to the market at IFO main camp of the Dadaab refugee camp. (Pic: AFP)

In a frenzy of activity the retailers, including 43-year old Fatima Ahmed, split the sacks open on the ground sorting the vivid green shrub into kilo bunches. Prices are seasonal and low during the current rainy period, but still, Ahmed said, she buys at 100 shillings (1 euro) and sells at 150 shillings (1.40 euro) making a modest daily income. “It’s a good business,” Ahmed said.

Sellers’ profits are ploughed back into Dadaab’s thriving economy which, according to a 2010 study, is worth around $25 million (22m euros) a year. The research, commissioned by Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs, found that Dadaab also earned the nearby non-refugee, or host, community $14m (13m euros) a year in trade and contracts.

Mini Dubai

Each camp has its own market but Hagadera is the most established. A Kenyan official described it as “a mini Dubai”.

A Somali refugee shops for fresh produce at a market within the Hagadera camp of Dadaab. (Pic: AFP)
A Somali refugee shops for fresh produce at a market within the Hagadera camp of Dadaab. (Pic: AFP)

There are hotels and restaurants selling grilled camel meat, chilli hot samosas and spiced tea with camel milk, general stores with shelves of pasta, rice, milk powder and sugar – much of it smuggled in from Somalia and sold at a steep discount – electronics shops with the latest smartphones, narrow alleys stuffed with stalls selling new and secondhand clothes, fabrics and shoes and shady passages lined with tarpaulins piled with mangos, avocadoes, potatoes and onions.

Ali Saha, a 23-year old university graduate who runs a cyber café, said he wants to return to Somalia, just not yet.

“Education is a privilege and from that angle being a refugee is not that bad,” he said. “I should return so I can help my community in Somalia but I need to go back when my country is stable.”

Kenya demands UN remove Somali refugee camp after Garissa attack

An aerial view shows an extension of the Ifo camp, one of several refugee settlements in Dadaab. (Pic: Reuters)
An aerial view shows an extension of the Ifo camp, one of several refugee settlements in Dadaab. (Pic: Reuters)

Kenya has given the United Nations three months to remove a camp housing more than half a million Somali refugees, as part of a get-tough response to the killing of 148 people by Somali gunmen at a Kenyan university.

Kenya has in the past accused Islamist militants of hiding out in Dadaab camp which it now wants the UN refugee agency UNHCR to move across the border to inside Somalia.

“We have asked the UNHCR to relocate the refugees in three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves,” Deputy President William Ruto said in a statement on Saturday.

“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,” he said, referring to the university that was attacked on April 2.

Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Kenya, said they were yet to receive formal communication from the government on the relocation of Dadaab and could not comment.

The complex of camps hosts more than 600 000 Somali refugees, according to Ruto, in a remote, dry corner in northeast Kenya, about an hour’s drive from Garissa town.

The camp was first established in 1991 when civil war broke out in neighbouring Somalia, and over subsequent years has received waves of refugees fleeing conflict and drought.

The United Nations puts the number of registered refugees in the chronically overcrowded settlements of permanent structures, mud shanties and tents, at around 335 000. The camp houses schools, clinics and community centres.

Macharia Munene, professor of international relations at USIU-Africa, said the logistics of moving hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border would be “a tall order”.

But he said there were now safe areas within Somalia from where Islamist al Shabab militants had been chased out by African Union forces in recent years.

“Kenya is in an emergency situation… Each country has an obligation to look after its people first,” he told Reuters.

‘We must secure this country at all costs’
Funerals of the students killed in the campus attack were taking place across the country. Pictures of their grieving families dominated the media, reminding Kenyans of the attack.

Ruto said Kenya had started building a 700-km wall along the entire length of the border with Somalia to keep out members of al Shabab.

“We must secure this country at whatever cost, even if we lose business with Somalia, so be it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Kenya closed 13 informal money remittance firms, hawalas, to cut off funding to suspected radicals. Ruto said any business that collaborated with al Shabab would be shut down.

Al Shabab has killed more than 400 people on Kenyan soil in the last two years, including 67 during a siege at Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013, damaging tourism and inward investment.

On Monday, the Kenyan air force launched air strikes against al Shabab targets in Somalia, a country where it has been militarily engaged against the Islamists for several years.

Kenya’s security act threatens refugees

During an April 2014 crackdown, over 350 undocumented Somalis were deported from Kenya and many more were sent to refugee camps. (Pic: IRIN / Ahmed Hassan)
During an April 2014 crackdown, over 350 undocumented Somalis were deported from Kenya and many more were sent to refugee camps. (Pic: IRIN / Ahmed Hassan)

Human rights groups are warning that Kenya’s controversial Security Amendment Act still poses a threat to refugees’ rights despite a high court decision on Friday that suspends parts of the bill for 30 days pending a full court hearing.

The suspension included a section of the wide-ranging bill, popularly known as the ‘anti-terror’ law, that amended Kenya’s Refugees Act. The amendment stipulates that, “the number of refugees and asylum seekers permitted to stay in Kenya shall not exceed 150 000.”

Currently there are over 600 000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people living in Kenya, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Although the cap of 150 000 can be reset by the National Assembly, rights groups fear that the new amendment will result in large numbers of refugees being forcibly returned. This would amount to refoulement, a serious contravention of international refugee law.

On Friday, the Judge ruled that other sections of the new act that deal with refugees will remain in place including a requirement that anyone who has applied for refugee status remain in designated refugee camps “until the processing of their status is concluded.” There are over 50 000 non-camp based refugees living in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, according to UNHCR.

A Court of Appeals will, within 30 days, rule on the constitutionality of 22 sections of the bill, which are being challenged by the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNHRC) and the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord).

The Security Amendment Act was passed on 18 December after a heated debate in Parliament that culminated in a fistfight among members of the lower house. It was signed into law by the President the following day.

It took less than two weeks to draft and pass the law following a spate of terror attacks conducted by Somali terrorist group, al-Shabab in Kenya. On December 2, 36 people were gunned down by al-Shabab in a quarry close to Mandera town, an area close to the Kenya-Somalia border. Ten days earlier, less than 50 kilometers away, 28 bus passengers had been shot by the group.

Kenya has suffered more than 50 gun, grenade or improvised explosive device (IED) attacks since 2011, when it began its military operation against al-Shabab in Somalia.

Somali refugees disproportionately affected
Amnesty International argues that while the new law, if enforced, would inevitably lead to refoulement, it could also be discriminatory in its implementation.

“We’re very concerned about who will be targeted to be sent back,” Michelle Kagari, deputy regional director for East Africa at Amnesty International, told IRIN. “We have been documenting that refugees, and Somali refugees in particular, have been disproportionally targeted by the link between refugees, terrorism and Kenya’s security operation in Somalia.”

UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015, refugees and asylum seekers from Somalia will represent nearly 70 percent of the people of concern to UNHCR in Kenya.

Fears about the targeting of Somalis are echoed within the Somali refugee community.

“The anti-terror law is mainly meant for Muslims, and the Somalis in particular,” Sheikh Mohamed Abdi, a Muslim cleric living in Dadaab, the largest complex of refugee camps in Kenya where the majority of refugees are Somali. “There is nowhere to run. We fled from Somalia because of terror-related problems and here, where we thought it was a safe haven, is becoming another hell.”

“There are some refugees who are not registered and staying in the camp and so the police can arrest them, assume they are terrorists and hold them for one year,” said Abdi Ahmed, the Section N chairman in Dadaab, and a community leader. “The entire refugee community lives in panic.” Under the new law, terror suspects can be held for up to one year without trial.

Even registered refugees fear the restrictions on movement that the new law will formalise. “Getting a movement pass these days is very difficult and for students, not having it means missing classes and sometimes exams,” said a Dadaab youth leader, who wished to remain anonymous. He believed that the law will make movement even harder.

The Security Amendment Act comes in the wake of a worsening climate for refugees in Kenya. In April 2014, thousands of ethnic Somalis were rounded up in Nairobi, and held at a sports stadium as part of an operation dubbed Usalama Watch. Similar crackdowns have occurred across the country. Many refugees who had been living in cities were sent to Dadaab.

Government defends law
Kenya’s Attorney General, Githu Muigai, has defended the new law. In his response to the petition filed by the opposition party and various human rights groups, through the Solicitor-General, he said that the discretion accorded to Parliament to temporarily increase the numbers of refugees allowed to remain in the country would ensure that refoulement does not occur

He further argued that the laws were necessary to combat terrorism. “We currently have forces in Somalia and it is important to note that the country has been attacked several times. The law, as it is, enables the security personnel to counter threats posed to Kenyans. The issue of life is more important than anything else,” said Muturi.

However, rights groups strongly rebutted this argument. “The government needs to deal with security appropriately and do it in a way that respects human rights. The two are not contradictory,” said Amnesty International’s Kagari. “All three amendments are not only violating the spirit of the constitution but also Kenya’s commitment under the refugee convention.”