Dabaab’s dilemma

| February 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

Kenya’s refugee camps, the largest in the world, are overcrowded. What to do?


Paralyzed by polio, Muktar, a 31-year-old father of five, is relocated by donkey cart from a temporary settlement into a new tent.

Paralyzed by polio, Muktar, a 31-year-old father of five, is relocated by donkey cart from a temporary settlement into a new tent.

More than 100,000 Somalis have fled to Kenya in the past six months to escape a drought and famine that has decimated the East African country. They trek across barren, drought-ravaged, sand-covered land in blowing wind to do so.
Then, they arrive at Dadaab, an overcrowded settlement made up of dirt pathways, administrative buildings, large, self-sustaining markets and tin-roofed shacks and tents in neat rows surrounded by thick wood fences made of branches. Children run around, and goats wander the open spaces dotted with thin-limbed trees where some of the town’s brown-skinned inhabitants have spent their lifetimes.
For the past 20 years, in the desert-like border region of the eastern part of Kenya, a strange settlement of stateless Somalis has established an uncertain existence in the Dadaab refugee camps: lives spent in exile. The camps are the largest and most overcrowded in the world. At the beginning of 2011, the settlement, built for 90,000, had more than 300,000 refugees competing for space and resources.
The complex was built in 1991 to house refugees from the Somali civil war. After the initial mass arrival in 1991 and 1992, a steady inflow of Somalis has continued to arrive at the settlement, which is made up of three camps set up with mud houses, open markets, schools, administrative buildings and borehole wells on an open swath of land provided by the Kenyan government. Desperate women and children have walked for days to reach the shelter and food provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In 2011, the camps received 140,000 refugees, almost half of them in June and July alone. The UNHCR expected that, by year’s end, more than 500,000 people would be crammed into a space meant to house less than one-fifth of that number.
Improvements made at the camps over the years are now being overwhelmed by this mass influx. Better shelter, sanitation, food distribution, policing and protection have all been sacrificed, while riots, rape and insecurity have once again become the norm.
Some had to wait days in the early hours of the emergency for food or assistance. Many fell through the cracks. Some died.
An expansion of the camps, planned to address the original overcrowding, is now being filled with rows of white UNHCR tents to accommodate the new arrivals. Aid workers worry about running out of water; in some areas of the camps, 1,250 people share one tap.
Lessons have emerged from 20 years at Dadaab, where what began as a temporary solution has spanned generations.
Overcrowding wouldn’t be an issue if not for the protracted situation that has been left to fester. Dr. James Milner, a Carleton University expert in refugee issues, says: “The idea of simply providing humanitarian assistance to refugees in camps is not going to lead to a solution.” Dr. Milner sees three options: repatriation, resettlement or local integration. But a return to Somalia through repatriation isn’t a realistic option for Somali refugees and resettlement to another country would have been more easily done before Sept. 11, 2001.
Local integration of refugees into Kenyan society may, however, be a more viable option. It would require the Kenyan government to offer citizenship (or another form of legal status) for refugees in much the same way that Tanzania did in 2010. This would allow refugees freedom to move beyond the confines of the camps, permitting them to work and to contribute to Kenyan society. While the Kenyan constitution has been amended to allow for this solution, the political will doesn’t exist to implement it.

Kenya has a long, problem-fraught history of hosting Somali refugees. Security concerns have caused the government to adopt a policy of containing refugees in the camps. Kenya has often been lauded for its willingness to allow the refugees into the country, but without the freedom to leave the camps, the refugees have few options.
Dr. Milner says the current crisis is an opportunity to make Kenya, which has long abdicated all responsibility to the UNHCR, a full partner in dealing with refugee issues. Given the circumstances in Somalia, it’s more than probable that Kenya will continue to host its refugees for many years.
Security problems are not a new phen­omenon in refugee camps, but deciding how to deal with them in the future has to include lessons from what has worked in the past.
With this latest influx of people, and the subsequent scarcity of resources, security has once again become an issue at Dadaab. But more policing isn’t the only answer. In fact, according to Dr. Milner, it isn’t a matter of simply increasing the number of officers. Nuanced and innovative responses are needed — what Dr. Milner calls “targeted interventions.” Better training for police officers has worked in the past. As well, the UNHCR has employed counselors to help the victims of crime.
The UNHCR and other aid organizations have been warning of a crisis in the region for several years, says William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman in Dadaab. Still, the world was unprepared for what happened. “The infrastructure is in place,” he said, “but what caught everyone by surprise was the number of people who arrived in such a short period.”
Famine and drought were once problems contained within a country’s borders, he explained. As environmental disasters become more common, mass movement across borders may as well. The world needs to be prepared with funds, food and supplies.
Yet the UNHCR doesn’t have a permanent budget. Instead, each year it appeals to governments for handouts. Each year, the organization must raise 95 percent of its budget.
In its final 2011 global appeal, the UNHCR budgeted $223 million for operations in Kenya. The influx of refugees during the year led to a budget shortfall of between 20 percent and 40 percent. It’s difficult to budget for unexpected disasters. An operating budget would make it easier. Indeed, the financial pressure is not only about more money – but, rather, about being able to spend funds as needed rather than as directed by donor countries.
According to Alexandra Lopoukhine, who works with Care Canada (the UNHCRs main partner on the ground in Dadaab), the solution here is to use permanent funds to merge emergency response with development initiatives in the camps — including the cost of higher education. Those permanent funds would help support development projects within the camps. They could, for example, be used to introduce new farming techniques that would help refugees produce their own food and lower their dependence on the agency for day-to-day survival. That in itself would go a long way to solving many of the issues in the camps. This could include working with the United Nations Development Program to increase water and food supplies.
All of the experts agree that finding solutions for Dadaab, and for those who live there, is complicated. If solutions had been sought more aggressively in the past, rather than letting the Somalis languish in the stateless life of UNHCR handouts, the camps would have been at least partially cleared out and better able to accommodate the latest influx. Alas, millions of aid dollars have been put into Dadaab and yet the world is no closer to a long-term solution for the camps’ inhabitants.

Chantaie Allick is a reporter and writer based in Toronto.

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Chantaie Allick is a reporter and writer based in Toronto.

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