It paints an image of misery and despair and is synonymous with terror attacks that have claimed many innocent lives in Kenya. Perceived as a hub for terror gangs, the world’s biggest refugees camp is now facing imminent closure following a tripartite agreement signed on November 10 between Kenya, Somalia and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
But the three parties are now facing the reality that closing the camp which is a home to more than half a million refugees is going to be a logistical nightmare. “The process (of repatriation) will require massive logistical arrangement. That may cost millions of dollars in cash and in kind,” said UNHCR representative in Kenya Raouf Mazou.
He said just like in Liberia where thousands of Ivorian refugees were voluntarily returned home following a tripartite agreement between the governments of Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and UNHCR, the process will be gradual and make take “more than ten years”.
One writer described the move to close “Kenya’s unwanted city” as like “emptying out the entire Republic of Cape Verde”, which is virtually impossible.
Dadaab has evolved from a mere refugee camp into an informal “city” trading with businesses worth more than Sh2 billion in a year, according to a 2010 Kenyan government study.
Parties will now have to decide the fate of ongoing multi-million investments both by the government and private institutions.
There are 46 primary schools and six secondary schools in the camp, supported by local and international humanitarian organisations. Kenyatta University has a campus at the camp, offering both under and post-graduate courses in peace and conflict studies, public policy, commerce and education which will be open to refugees, students from the local community and staff from humanitarian organisations.
The camp has also a number of middle-class medical centres with moderate facilities. In what can be one of the highest number of vehicles in a single police station, the Dadaab police station has 22, mainly provided by the refugee agency.
If the camps were to shut down as threatened by the Cabinet Minister for Interior, Joseph Ole Lenku, the question would be, what kind of life awaits the refugees back at home? How fast would they re-integrate with Somalis?
Abdi Musa, of Dagahley camp, who fled the troubled country, 22 years ago, painted it clearly. “Where on earth will I go in Somalia? We are told UNHCR sets up a-return-home help desk, where will I mentioned as my preferred destination,” said Musa throwing his hands into air. “I have never set foot in Somalia. Telling me to go back there will be ridiculous and unfair,” he said. Even as the refugee agency maintains the process will be “strictly voluntary” fear and skepticism still hang in the air among refugees.
We met Halima Hussein at a Kenya Red Cross centre in Ifo1 camp (the oldest). “We were told that we will be chased out of camps. Is that true? Where are we going?” She asked. “My kids are in schools and madrasa (Islamic school), there are no schools in Somalia.”
Leonard Zulu, the senior protection coordinator at UNHCR in Dadaab said many of the refugees were born here, intermarried with the local communities while their children have progressed in education through to universities in the capital Nairobi. Children born here do not know whether they are Somali or Kenyan citizens.
“It is going to be difficult to convince them to go back after being in the camps for the better part of their lives,” he told reporters in Dadaab town.
In a recent survey by the UN, at least 50 per cent of the refugees questioned said that they could not even consider returning to Somalia.
“The refugee leaders expressed skepticism about the situation in Somalia, saying that in principle they wanted to go home, but they still did not believe that favourable conditions for return in safety were in place,” UNHCR said.
But Abdia Noor was more optimistic. “I love my country (Somalia) with all my heart. Nothing soothes me see my country peaceful. I pray to Allah that we will be back soon,” she prayed. “There is no dignity being in a refugee,” she adds.
When the camp was set up by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, with a capacity of 90,000 persons and now holding four times that number, it was an uninviting, harsh location and now to a globally recognised ‘refugee tourism’ destination and a trade booming center.
Some commentators ask whether refugee presence in the country is really a burden. “If Kenya’s government approached the refugee issue as part of its development strategy, it could yield a win-win situation,” said Melanie Teff, a senior advocate and European representative for Refugees International, a US NGO funded to promote welfare of refugees.
“Of course, we don’t often think of refugees as an economic asset. Usually, they are seen as vulnerable, lacking capacity, or a drain on the resources of host communities. If counted as a city, Dadaab would be Kenya’s third largest – the economic possibilities are tremendous,” said Teff in a comment in The Guardian.
Business activities in the camp are intricately connected to the Kenyan economy.
In the midst of the scorching temperature and whirling dry wind, packed shops and stalls dot the unpaved pathways-restaurants, lodges and workshops compete for space.
Anything legal and illegal is traded here, ranging from petroleum products, clothes, sugar, Italian spaghetti (pasta), powdered milk, dates, gold, batteries, satellite dishes and mobile phones. The powdered milk is mainly New Zealand-manufactured.
Most of these products enter the lawless Somalia (once touted as the model of a democracy in Africa), through the ports of Kismayu, Bosaso and the capital Mogadishu.
Refugees say sugar mainly originates from Brazil via Kismayu, where it finds its way into the camp in lorries in the wee hours of the night.
“Of course some government officials including the police know about it,” said a source who requested not to be named.
Hawala, the Somali informal money transfer system, is common with millions of shillings mainly from relatives in the diaspora changing hands daily.
Goods here are cheaper because most of it is smuggled through the porous Kenya-Somali border untaxed. A kilogramme of locally manufactured sugar, for instance retails at Sh120 in Nairobi, but here at Dadaab, the same amount is sold at Sh50.
A local shop owner in Dadaab town, said many of these goods in stock are ferried from the port of Kismayu by businessmen in cahoots with custom officials and security agencies.
This has cloaked the camp in a bad reputation of goods and weapons smuggling, harboring terror gangs, fueling the constant political debate that it should be closed.
Government officials who fail to ‘toe the line’ are usually marked for elimination by a network of smugglers, the source added.
In March, two Kenya Revenue Authority officials were shot dead by unknown gunmen in Garissa Town while a number of police officers were killed.
In a report commissioned in 2010, by the Kenyan, Danish and Norwegian governments showed that the Dadaab camps earn the surrounding community about Sh1.2 billion ($14m annually). The study also found that the annual turnover of refugee-run, camp-based business ventures in the camp is estimated at Sh2.1 billion ($25m).
The report In Search of Protection and Livelihoods: Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts of Dadaab Refugee Camps on Host Communities said, “on a per capita basis, the combined economic benefits to the host community represent an estimated 25% of average annual per capita income in North Eastern region”.
About Sh153 million ($1.8m) from the sale of livestock for slaughter in the camps alone every year. Dagahley for instance, more than ten camels are slaughtered daily to cater for the entire refugee camp, according to sources.
Seen as the country’s third largest urban center in terms of population, the complex is much more like to a ‘city’ than a refugee camp, given its social and economic structures.
Authorities however oppose the “city” tag because cities require long-term planning on infrastructure and amenities while refugee camps should be temporary.
“It is not my wish to be a refugee. We owned successful businesses before we came here, it is degrading to line-up for handouts but you live as it comes,” said Abdi Ali, at a World Food Programme distribution center, in Dagahley. In October, the UN agency has announced food distribution reduction “due lack enough resources”.
In Dadaab, return help-desks have been established to provide refugees with information and assistance on repatriation to Somalia for those who are willing to return. The process will involve asking all Somali refugees whether they wish to return home, and if so, where to.
According to UNHCR, at least 400 have so far declared their intention to go back home. The list is growing, but so are the challenges.
Source: The Stander