Protracted refugees in Dadaab.
Late 2011, conditions in the Horn of Africa hit the international news again, in similar ways that the famines in Somalia and Ethiopia did in 1991 and 1984. The Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya received a lot of media coverage during this period as well – partly because of the dire state of the refugees who arrived in the camps and partly because it was the most accessible place for journalists covering the Somali drought and conflict.
The dehumanizing pictures of starving children and stories of parents who had to leave their dying children behind that were produced during the coverage of the famine, spoke to the world in two ways. Such pictures and stories spoke to the world in terms of the utter despair of those affected and they spoke to the world in terms of the international community’s failure to act and save lives. However, as Liisa Malkki pointed out almost two decades ago, these underlying storylines hide the humanity we share with the people affected and fail to acknowledge the many political causes of ‘humanitarian’ disasters. Recent contributions by Laura Hammond, Ken Menkhaus, Ellen Lammers and Mark Bradbury have challenged the depoliticized nature of an overly humanitarian focus on famine. In this article, I wish to focus on the dehumanizing aspects of the famine reporting.
Liisa Malkki exposed the ways in which images and stories of refugees as ‘masses of bare humanity’ allow viewers to fully disconnect from our shared humanness, effectively hiding the fundamental uncertainty faced by all human beings. The images ‘other’ the effects of violent conflict and natural disasters to another part of the world in similar ways that these effects are ‘othered’ to another point in time, far in history. In both cases, a distance is created that allows the consumers of these media images not to be confronted with how uncertainty is part of all human existence.
Here, my aim is to challenge the dehumanizing traits of common images and stories about the famine by presenting the story of Ubah Abdi, one of Dadaab’s inhabitants who has lived in the camps since they were first established over twenty years ago. I will do this within the context of life in and beyond the Dadaab camps, in order to illustrate how the current displacement emergency cannot be presented only as a severe disruption for those displaced – since displacement is a familiar reality for approximately one quarter of Somalia’s inhabitants. Whereas the largest proportion of the displaced do not move across national borders but are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), a considerable number do become refugees – the largest number hosted in neighboring Kenya.
Dadaab is a small town in Northeastern Kenya that has become synonymous with the refugee camps that have grown in its vicinity since 1991. In 1999, when I lived in the Dadaab camps for a year researching how Somali refugees lived their lives and organized their livelihoods in the camps, the camps housed 120,000 people. Since then, their numbers have swelled to a staggering 500,000. They are women, men and children who fled insecurity and war – and, once again these days, drought. The Horn of Africa’s worst drought since 1991 has hit their country. On some particularly busy days in 2011, 3000 ‘new arrivals’ were registered. It is very difficult to imagine how the infrastructure set in place for providing assistance to the refugees dealt with this influx.
Indeed, support is insufficient and insecurity a great concern – now and in the past. In a June 2011 verdict, in the matter of Sufi and Elmi v UK, the European Court of Human Rights found that conditions in Dadaab camp violated Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This article stipulates that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In particular, the Court found that the risk of violence from Kenyan police and criminal gangs within and outside the camps; overcrowding; lack of adequate water; and restrictions on freedom of movement cumulatively resulted in inhuman or degrading treatment. This court case illustrates that, while the current explosion of the numbers of the refugee population combined with the marginal backgrounds of the newly arrived refugees is drastically worsening the situation, these conditions have been an aspect of life in Dadaab ever since 1991.
The Dadaab refugee camps are situated in Kenya’s Northeastern Province, a vast stretch of semi-arid land that has been the object of dispute between Kenya and Somalia since independence. Somalis constitute the majority of the population by far, but throughout its history Dadaab has hosted Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Ugandans and Zanzibarians. They live in an area with limited livelihood opportunities, due to ecological restrictions, a poor infrastructure and high levels of insecurity. Historically, pastoral nomads survived in this scarcely populated area. After the collapse of the Somali state in December 1990, refugees started moving into Dadaab area in large numbers, and with the refugees came international assistance. Later, new refugees arrived who were relocated to Dadaab with the close-down of other Kenyan camps, including Utange.
International assistance efforts, in terms of donor support, have largely concentrated on providing food aid, although food rations have never been sufficient. Other basic necessities have been similarly scarce: water in the camps has always been rationed, firewood distributed only occasionally and in insufficient amounts, and houses have been built mainly by the refugees themselves with local materials; at times assisted by plastic sheets from the agencies – although in recent years more permanent structures have been set up. Studies that were carried out in 2010 and 2011 show the problematic impacts of the scarcity of basic necessities on people’s livelihoods and on nutritional conditions in the camps. Similar studies have been produced throughout the history of the camps – with malnutrition levels fluctuating but high at various points in time.
The search for an independent livelihood in Dadaab is complicated by several factors, as I document in the monograph Transnational Nomads. Firstly, refugees in Kenya in practice do not have the right to move. Although the Refugee Act of 2006 indicates that refugees shall be entitled to the rights and be subject to the obligations contained in the international conventions to which Kenya is party’ (art 16(1)A) – which would allow them freedom of movement – it also identifies the right for the government to identify designated areas as refugee camps. Here, ‘movement passes’ should be issued for those who wish to travel outside the camps. Such passes are not often issued as refugees are expected to remain in the camps, with only few exceptions (for example because of health reasons or advanced studies).
Secondly, the refugees in the camps in practice do not have the right to work. Here, the Refugee Act indicates that in respect to wage earning, refugees shall be subjected to the same restrictions as are imposed on persons who are not citizens of Kenya (art 16(4)). This means that even those working for the various humanitarian organizations operating in Dadaab only receive ‘incentives’ rather than proper wages. Thirdly, the camps’ location in an ecologically marginal and insecure area complicates attempts to secure a livelihood. Agricultural opportunities are almost non-existent due to the poor quality of the soil and limited rains, and collecting natural resources like firewood or building material is an activity that brings very little profit and involves great risk because of security constraints. Some own livestock, but these are assets that only few can afford, and with the high concentration of refugees in Dadaab, grazing areas need to be found at increasing distances from the camps.
In these difficult circumstances, livelihoods in Dadaab build on relationships with those outside the refugee camps: trade networks are established through collaborations with the local population in the district and with contacts in Nairobi and Somalia; whereas a proportion of the refugees receive remittances from outside the camps. Many table-kiosks are found throughout the blocks in each camp, and the larger camp markets provide an amazing variety of goods – mostly arriving through Somalia.
Extensive regional and international networks have been established that seem to center around the camps and have guaranteed a thriving local business environment. Remittances are crucial in these networks both in providing the start-up capital for small and middle-size businesses that are set up, as well as in increasing the purchasing power of refugees in the camps. These money streams are received in Dadaab through hawala money transfer businesses and also increasingly MPesa mobile phone cash services. Whereas the most substantial sums are sent from Europe, North America, and parts of the Middle East, many more receive (often smaller) amounts from relatives, friends and business partners regionally, including from Nairobi, parts of Somalia and other countries on the continent.
While the description of the Dadaab camps as a hub within regional and international networks can lead us to suggest that the refugee camps are simply transforming from temporary settlements into permanent cities, there are two arguments against such a conclusion. First, the recent large influx of new refugees clearly illustrates how the situation of Somali refugees can be understood only as a protracted refugee situation. This ‘protractedness’means that there is ‘no solution in sight ’ for the refugees affected, although it does not mean that the protracted situation in Dadaab is a static situation. New crises occur and reoccur continuously, recently for example including a population increase far beyond what the camps’ infrastructure can handle; severe droughts and floods; outbreaks of cholera and other epidemics; and security incidents that affect refugees and agency staff alike.
Secondly, just like the international agencies and donors involved continue understanding the camps as a temporary solution, the inhabitants of Dadaab are not accepting their stay in the camps as permanent. Many are obsessed with finding ways out of the camps, an obsession that has been termed buufis by the Somali, and quite a few of the young people I met in Dadaab throughout the years no longer live in the camps. Buufis refers to people’s hopes, longings, desires and dreams to go for resettlement. This obsession with resettlement is not only explained by the difficult circumstances in the camps, but also by the regional and international networks that people in Dadaab are part of.
Social media plays an important role in this as well, as I have realized from my contacts with refugees in Dadaab and those who were able to move out of Dadaab. They send me Facebook requests from around the world, and now live in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Hargeisa, Garowe, Johannesburg, Minneapolis, Columbus, Toronto and other places. Their Facebook sites display a life that is in stark contrast with life in Dadaab, and the contrasts are becoming increasingly visible with increasing connectivity – especially to the youth in the camps.
There are those refugees who have not found a way out of Dadaab. They continue to live in a ‘protracted refugee situation’ and with that, they themselves could be described as protracted refugees – being stuck in the camps against their will. Many of the first to arrive in Dadaab are increasingly desperate about the fact that they are still in the camps after twenty years, having seen many others leave.
One of them is Ubah Abdi, and I would like to share her story here. Ubah is a mother of two young boys, Mohamed and Ahmed, who provides for them working for an international organization. She is also a refugee, and has been for the larger part of her life. What ‘protracted’ really means can best be explained by describing my encounters with Ubah – which also clearly illustrate that it is unacceptable to refugees in Dadaab to see their lives there as permanent.
I first met Ubah in 1999, while I spent a year in Dadaab to understand livelihoods in the camps and learned that, far from being a remote stretch of dryland, the Dadaab camps were connected to the world in many ways. Family members, friends and former neighbors who had left the camps, for example, stayed connected by sending money and describing their lives abroad.
Although Ubah’s family had no connections abroad, they were relatively well-off as her seven siblings were educated and many of them worked for the agencies in the camps. Ubah worked for CARE International at the time and was an incredibly strong young woman - humble, outspoken and full of energy to do her job well and assist other refugees in the camps. As a social worker she heard and saw many horrendous stories and saw people who lived in much worse conditions than herself. Security was an issue those years as well, and attacks in the blocks made everybody feel vulnerable. And yet, I mostly found her positive and full of hope and laughter.
Ubah got married and had kids. She also applied for resettlement. Time went by, her case got rejected and conditions in Dadaab worsened in line with worsening conditions in Somalia – combining violent conflict and famine. Throughout the years we kept meeting, online or in person, and it is as if Ubah slowly lost hope. After twenty years, having seen many of her friends and colleagues leave to start their lives anew in better places, she is still in Dadaab. She has contemplated crossing to Yemen to try to find work there. As her mother is originally from the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, Ubah suggests she would be able to manage the journey.
After twenty years, Ubah’s hopes and dreams are getting increasingly desperate. She is close to trying anything to leave Dadaab so that she can establish a future outside the camps for her two sons. Being in a protracted refugee situation, I believe, for Ubah means seeing that her children’s future might be identical to her past, after having lived in ‘temporary’ conditions for the greater part of her life. Conditions that, I’d like to recall, the European Court of Human Rights has found to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.
In actual fact, Ubah is among the better off inhabitants of Dadaab, having established herself in the camps and being able to provide for herself and her children. While CARE International no longer operates in the camps, Ubah has worked for a number of humanitarian organizations. She speaks English well and has received extensive training and experience over the years, so she will continue to be able to provide for herself in the camps as long as there are international agencies in Dadaab.
The situation is very different for the many individuals who arrive on a daily basis from various parts of Somalia. Many came from rural areas in the inter-riverine area between the Juba and Shabelle rivers, and lost their livestock and/or crops due to the drought as well as the violent conflict in the region. During the long journey to Dadaab they incurred further losses and many died along the way. Those who have been in the camps for long discuss the conditions of the newcomers with horror, and have started assisting them. Since many of them are in a much better position than the new arrivals, where they can, they want to alleviate the suffering they are confronted with.
In Hagadera, the Dadaab camp Ubah reluctantly calls home, the youth and others active in the community have set up a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) that provides new arrivals food, clothes and other items donated from within the refugee community. Mohamed Ibrahim, who works for one of the humanitarian aid organizations and participates in the CERT, indicates that the team tries to assess the situation of those who arrive, to make sure they help the ones in greatest need. Often, those are the largest families, or those with family members with disabilities.
Whereas health indicators in the camps are at emergency levels, international agencies cannot handle the influx and are not in a position to provide more than some first handouts and medical screening upon registration. After that, many people are stranded and have to wait for long to find out where they are going to be relocated to. They need urgent assistance but do not receive it immediately in Dadaab. They may have to wait for years, and whereas the refugee community obviously cannot change this situation, it helps where it can, sharing what it has.
The refugee-initiated support has expanded and money, food and other items are sent from Wajir, Garissa and Nairobi by the Somali business community and others in a position to assist. The mosques play an important role in collections and distributions as well, and so does the Islamic charity Al-Haramain.
Last year’s news reporting on the crisis in Dadaab – focusing on the high number of destitute people arriving each day, the horror stories of what they experienced in Somalia, the cholera outbreak, killings and abductions in the camps – creates an impression of urgency, of a crisis here and now. It has done little to bring to the world’s attention the fact that Ubah and many others with her have lived in these conditions for the last twenty years. One could argue that the main reason why these are the conditions of her life in Dadaab, has in fact been the international focus on emergencies, as urgent and extreme conditions, rather than on the underlying facts of refugee life in Dadaab: The absence of the right to move from an economically unsustainable area, the absence of the right to work, and the political realities of the conflict and famine, have meant that after twenty years, refugees in Dadaab remain in search of protection for themselves and generations to come.
The author is senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), where she heads the Migration Research Group.
Photos: Cindy Horst, Khadra Elmi (Construction site Dadaab).
Special thanks to Mohamed Hassan Ibrahim and Sadio Mahat Ali for their research input to this article.
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