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Dadaab: Closure threat or another chance?


By Mohamed Abdirahman

The news to close Dadaab camps does not surprise refugees anymore. It has been there over years; year in, year out. It is no longer sad news either. In 2015, when Kenya’s Deputy President announced they will close the camp — in less than 3 months — thousands of Somalis refugees auctioned properties they have invested in the past two decades in order to avoid the last minute rush. Plots that traded in thousands of dollars have drastically fallen; as business started recording the lowest gains ever.  But things resumed back to normalcy when the international community came in and convinced Kenya to rescind its decision; hence the tripartite agreement between the UN refugee agency, Kenya and Somalia stayed put.

The history

As of January 2019, Dadaab which was established in 1991 and aimed to host some 90,000 refugees and at this time, Dadaab is the third largest refugee camp in the world hosts close to 210,000 refugees. It is located in the north-eastern part of Kenya; approximately 90kms to the border town of Dhobley. It grew larger and larger until at one point it became the largest refugee camp in the world.

Dadaab experienced the largest number of asylum seekers in the year 2011 after the worst drought in 60 years hit the southern and central part of Somalia. Dadaab, the only safe haven for the fleeing families, recorded the highest number of refugees after the civil war. The influx of refugees led to the establishment of new camps- Kambios and Ifo2 both of which have now been closed after most of those refugees resided there returned voluntarily to Somalia, simply because they could not adopt the harsh environment in the camps: the shortage, the weather and the confinement they were subjected to. Most of the returnees had farms and were mainly pastoralists. The remaining ones are the original refugees who came to Dadaab as asylum seekers.

This means they know Kenya more than any other place in the world hence calling it HOME; with this year 2019 turning Dadaab 28 years old since it was first established. This means that children born in the camp are now fathers and mothers; some are even grandparents. While this tells a lot — thanks to Kenya for hosting and for the love and compassion — it also seems Kenya to be ruining all the good things she did for the people of Somalia.

Recurring threats

Ever since, Moi era, the second president of Kenya who retired in 2002, the threats forwarded to the Dadaab camp refugees always existed, but the threats doubled since Kenya crossed the border to fight the insurgent group-Al-Shabaab in the operation dubbed ‘Operation Linda Nchi.’ As the war intensified, Al-Shabaab also carried out some retaliatory attacks with the real victims being the refugees themselves as the camps were accused of harboring terrorists, hence the threats to close the camp doubled.

April 2015, Kenya’s William Ruto ordered — and gave a three-month ultimatum — the UN refugee agency and its international partners to close the camp or have Kenya to forcefully do so.  But Kenya softened its position and toned down the rhetoric after international condemnations by UNHCR and other members of the international community. This threat to close the camp has been there and has recurred as Kenya’s regimes changed. For example, in 2012, while at the UN General Assembly, former Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki appealed to the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon to relocate refugees in Kenya back to recaptured areas of Somalia.

However, despite all these accusations and the suffering Somali refugees go through, most of them still call Kenya home since they have lived in the country their entire life and in camps with the movement of people restricted, police harassment the order of the day and refugees’ life. Positively, refugees and the host communities have co-existed peacefully. But, ironically, the Government of Kenya uses the Al-Shabaab factor – which is everybody’s problem, threat, and concern, as an excuse to close the camp and send refugees back to a Somalia which is yet to take on Al-Shabaab, rebuild its army and take over its national security.

Dadaab, the economic hub

Dadaab is an economic hub in the region; it informally contributes to the country’s and the eastern Africa region’s market economy. A 2010 study found out that refugee-run, camp-based businesses in Dadaab have close to an annual of  US $ 25 million turnovers. The further says around US$ 14 million goes to — and directly benefits — the host communities in and around the camp areas.

With such an immense contribution some nine (9) years ago, the key question here is what would be Dadaab’s annual turnover as of today? Maybe close to US$ 50 to 70 million and that’s a big number compared to non-refugee business investment experienced in Kenya and in the region. This led host communities seeing refugees economic – and by extension wealth-generation — contributions to Kenya as a blessing to their market economy.


Every time the news of Dadaab closure comes into limelight the refugees have different reactions. To some it is welcome. These are families whose relatives and siblings have gotten the chance to be resettled. They receive monthly remittances that support them and take them through the month. They see the closure as nothing but a blessing that was delayed. They do not have the courage to go back but when the need arises they will welcome the decision.

There is, however, another group that worries most; especially when they hear such bad news. This is the high school students’ group aiming to join universities through scholarships, the ‘business sector’ who are people with premises and investment; and the ‘families’ who only rely on the bi-weekly relief food distributions as well as those waiting for the outcome of ongoing resettlement processes. These groups have varying opinions when it comes to returning to Somalia. But in the end, no one listens to the grievances, and this is but a sad reality.

By going through a number of refugees, mainly urban colleagues, there is, however, a consensus that refugee issues must not be politicized; nor should it be taken lightly. Many people remember the tripartite agreement, the court order, and the international outcry and this only emphasizes the fact that this is the life of human beings like Kenyans or internationals.

While the debate over the international, liberal refugee policy vs. the Kenyan-style encampment policy is valid and with that Kenya loses the battle for moral authority, it is up to President Kenyatta to leave this as one of his legacies and the key question here is: How will he be remembered by not only Somali refugees who have been in Kenya since 1991 but by the international refugee regime?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect GOOBJOOG NEWS editorial stance.