Freelance Journalist, Former Dadaab camp resident
Located just about 100km from Somalia’s border, Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp is home to almost half a million Somali refugees who have been seeking refuge there since the 1991 civil war. For over ten years, I was among those who called Dadaab home after fleeing Somalia as a child. I lived and worked in the camp and made many friends including amongst the host community and other refugees from neighboring countries.
Kenya’s security situation changed when its military entered Somalia in 2011 and later joined the African Union forces to fight Al-Shabaab. Since then Al-Shabaab has been carrying out retaliatory attacks throughout Kenya. Dadaab refugees are therefore caught up in the middle of the war between the two, and as a result, in May last year, Kenya announced it would shut down the camps and send Somali refugees back to their country. Kenya’s campaign to close the world’s largest refugee camp is based mainly on security and economic concerns. It claims the camps serve as a sanctuary for terrorist groups and are where some of the deadliest attacks on its citizens including the Garissa university attack in 2015 were plotted.
However, the reality on the ground is different. Dadaab refugees have become victims of the same terror Kenya is facing. I remember in the wake of these attacks in 2011, the refugee leaders forming a community police unit who were tasked with dealing with security issues in the camp, and many of them were targeted and killed by Al-Shabaab because of their collaboration with Kenyan security. Refugees in the camps work with the local police by carrying out patrols in the night. This shows that most Dadaab refugees are peace-loving people who risk their lives to work with the Kenyan government.
On the other hand, refugees contribute to Kenya’s economy by providing employment opportunities and paying annual taxes to the local authority. With help from family and friends in the diaspora, they developed a booming business within the camps where they trade with local Kenyans. Despite Kenya’s strict encampment policy that confines refugees to their tents, the camp market is filled with all sorts of goods and services including Internet cafes, bakeries, mobile phone shops and electronics. My friend Abdikadir Aden is one of those refugee entrepreneurs, who sells mobile phones and also runs mobile money transfer service in Ifo camp. He’s very ambitious and told me on a recent trip how the refugee restrictions prevent him from fully developing his businesses. He normally buys the phones and other goods from Nairobi but would prefer to deal with manufacturing companies directly. This is impossible, as he cannot move out of the camp. He instead sends money to middle men who purchase the items and send them to him.
Refugees transformed the isolated desert camps into a thriving business hub, which generates about $25 million annual turnover according to a 2010 study commissioned by Kenya (with funding from Denmark and Norway). The study also showed that the locals benefit up to $14 million per year.
I went back to Dadaab in early 2016 to document the commemoration of the 25th year of the camp’s existence. One of the young entrepreneurs I met was Noor Tawane, former youth leader, now a businessman and a father of eight who runs an ice factory in Hagadera camp. This camp is one of the oldest camps that make up the Dadaab refugee complex. Dadaab is usually hot but March is exceptionally hotter, with temperatures reaching over 40C degrees. That means Noor works all day to make enough ice for his customers. Behind the ice plant was another of Noor’s investments; a big house, made of corrugated iron sheet where two large generators were placed. They supply power to around 1,500 clients including businesses and households in the camp. He employs 12 young men who work in both stations. The camp is not connected to the national grid since the Kenyan government does not allow refugees to use electricity in a bid to stop the camp from ever becoming ‘permanent’. Refugees like Noor bypass this by using generators and his generators supply electricity to fellow refugees for a monthly fee. This is the main source of power for restaurants, shops, and cinemas in the market. Some families who can afford it also use electricity in their houses.
This means that Dadaab has become a functioning city, well beyond what you might expect from a refugee camp. It has its own leadership structure where elected refugee leaders work hand in hand with camp officials and aid agencies. There are markets, private schools and cinemas. Noor shared his ideas about what is driving this growth: “We have to do something to feed our children, you cannot just sit and wait for aid that is never enough. I was only 7 years old when we came here. I never thought I would marry in the camp and have children but this is real, it is happening and we have to face it.”
I believe there is a viable opportunity to harness the skills and energetic creativity of the Dadaab refugees instead of repatriating them. They have made tremendous effort in making the camps a source of income that benefits not only them but also the host community and the local government. What if they were given the freedom of movement and employment rights that would enable them to fully utilize their potential?
Editor’s Note: From time to time we host guest contributions to our blog series. These blogs are intended to provide a diversity of perspectives and voices on issues relevant to our programme of research. Views expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not represent the views of the Research and Evidence Facility or the EU Trust Fund for Africa.