Life in the world's largest refugee settlement

Anna Husarska
27 April 2009

These days "Somali" is synonymous with "pirate".  But piracy at sea isnothing more than a symptom of a disease that has been consuming theSomali land for the last 18 years and forcing hundreds of thousands ofSomalis to become refugees.

Woman recently arrived from Kismayo, Somalia to one of the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya

The roughly 270,000 Somalis in the three camps around the Dadaab town in the arid north eastern province of Kenya are particularly destitute. Not only do they flee one of the most horrific and all encompassing civil wars but their safe haven offers only a very desolate welcome. Their new "homes", 100 kilometres from the Somali border, are mostly makeshift shelters - many just sun-bleached rags haphazardly draped over sticks and pitched on the sandy scrubland. In such a context the yellow plastic sheeting resting on a frame made from shrubs looks prosperous by comparison with the flattened cardboard boxes fixed to sticks with string and wire. Even in utter misery, there are gradations of desperation.


Somali refugees wait at the United Nations' registration center in Dagahale camp.

The Kenyan authorities closed the border in January 2007. They said that this measure was aimed at preventing supporters of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union - the Islamist alliance that ran Somalia for six months before being toppled two years ago - from entering the country. Although closed, the frontier is porous and Somalis continue to arrive at a rate of 7,000 a month.  In August 2008 the land ran out and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, had to declare the camps full. Currently, the only fixed registration centre is in Dagahale camp (above) but UNHCR does a regular tour of other camps to register those who cannot make the last leg.


Sun-bleached rags haphazardly draped over sticks pitched on the scrubland make for "home"

The camps first opened in 1991 and at the time were designed for 90,000, so they are heavily overcrowded. Together, the three camps - Dagahale, population 77.000, Ifo, population 87,000 and Hagadera population 92,000 - constitute the largest refugee settlement in the world. Having promised to allocate land for new camps, the Kenyan government is now dragging its feet and the camp residents are suffering all sorts of shortages.

A child with digestion problems in the International Rescue Committee (IRC) hospital at Hagadera camp

With the closing of the border came the disappearance of the transit centre in Liboi 15 kilometers from the frontier which was checking the medical condition of all those arriving. Those who come now do not undergo any medical screening. Children are often dehydrated and hungry. They and their mothers are exhausted from many weeks of travel from Somalia and from the trauma of civil war. If not registered, the refugees have no right to food rations and water and they beg. This is practically an oxymoron because those from whom they beg do not have enough themselves.

Jerry cans lined up at public water taps in Ifo refugee camp of the Dadaab complex in Kenya

The overcrowding means that the primitive huts and shacks almost touch each other and leave little room for privacy. The strain on services such as drinking water is also enormous. It takes ever longer for each family to fill their jerry cans at the public taps. The humanitarian agencies consider that the minimum amount of water per person per day is 20 litres. But in the camps it is said to be 16 litres. Even this amount is probably not achieved because of unregistered refugees, consumption by livestock, use for mud-brick construction, quite apart from undetected leaks and unscrupulous profiteers who come to a tap and start asking for payment, thus excluding the most vulnerable.

The loss of a ration ticket, means simply famine until a new one can be issued, so the fashion is to have it around the neck

Food distribution for a quarter of a million people is a major operation. In the three Dadaab camps refugees come every two weeks with their cards around their necks and get them marked after they receive the items - such as wheat floor, maize, corn meal, cooking oil, corn and soya blend, salt, beans and soap. Piracy of ships carrying food aid for Africa has affected distribution if only because the price of transporting the aid takes into account insurance expenses. At the end of last year, UNHCR issued an appeal for $92 million for the year 2009. Hardly anyone answered this appeal and rations had to be trimmed.


Malaria nets are life-saving accessories for refugees in the IRC-run hospital of Hagadera camp

Since there is now no reception centre for the Somalis fleeing their country across the border, they are exposed to unscrupulous smugglers who often abuse them. Another hazard is the health situation: with no medical screening, epidemics are more likely to go undetected. There were already cases of cholera and measles, but it was thankfully caught in time and the outbreak was contained. In January this year the International Rescue Committee took over the administration of the hospital at Hagadera camp and of its four health centers. One of the major diseases in the camp is malaria, so every hospital bed has a blue mosquito net. 

Perhaps it is better that photos do not convey smells, some are very strong!

Another reason for diseases such as cholera becoming a real danger is that there are not enough latrines in the camp. Also, they are often not separated by gender (and for Somali women sharing a toilet with men is unacceptable). A row of latrines was constructed on the edge of the camp, for the sake of those who stay - unregistered - beyond its perimeter. Garbage disposal poses yet another hygiene problem: the waste is assembled in moulds and burned in the spaces between clusters of huts. This is a recipe for pollution.


Brick-making: one of a few "lucrative" options

The possibilities of earning any cash are very limited in the camps. One of the very few activities that bring some income is brick production and although it is not in the Somalis' tradition and it uses a fair amount of water, brick "factories" can be found all over the place. Houses made from them offer a bit more protection than the sticks-and-rugs combination. Another means of putting extra food on the table is to keep goats, or other animals. But without water this is not easy. Those with donkeys serve as transport companies, whether for food sacks on distribution days or for the sick and the pregnant women who need to be rushed to the hospital.


A cluster of Dreamland: travel agency next door to the New Somali Peace Hotel and a cinema 

A travel agency seems like an unlikely thing to find in a refugee camp. But an estimated 16,000 Somalis live in Kenya's capital Nairobi (especially in the area of Eastleigh, known as "Little Mogadishu"). A substantial movement of people goes on between the capital and the camps. The camps offer no job possibilities, but there is food distribution and access to health and education. The situation in Nairobi is exactly opposite. So although they lose their privileges as refugees, many inhabitants of the Dadaab camps choose to head for the capital, counting on the strong clan loyalties that give them access to a social network.


After several days in the camp, the sight of children playing comes as a shock

Kenyan authorities demand that refugees travelling outside the camps carry a "movement pass", although this is not in line with their international obligations. Those who do not have such a document may be detained and put in jail. Worse still, they may be subject to "refoulement" (unlawful forced refugee deportation). According to Human Rights Watch this has already happened to hundreds if not thousands. No wonder many in the camp prefer the - very relative - security of the camp. When I heard the children laughing in the shadow of this beautiful tree it dawned on me that in utter misery there can also be moments of joy.

Anna Husarska is Senior Policy Adviser at the International Rescue Committee, http://www.theirc.org .

Photos by Anna Husarska. All rights reserved.

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