Purgatory for Somali Refugees Trapped in a Metropolis of Suffering

The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, home to 270,000 Somali refugees, is the world's largest. Created 18 years ago as a stopgap, new fighting is driving thousands of additional refugees into the already overcrowded, overstretched camp.

By in Dadaab, Kenya

Hajir is waiting. He is sitting on a small chair in front of his hut, looking down the narrow street. The 41-year-old has done a lot of waiting in his life, for hours, days and years. Now he is waiting for the right moment to leave Dadaab.

Hajir has spent the last 18 years in Dadaab, which, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is the world's largest refugee camp. It is located in northeast Kenya, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) from the Somali border. Back in 1991, Dadaab was created to accommodate 90,000 refugees. Roughly 270,000 Somalis live there today, divided into three camps. They are people who have fled war and hardship in their own country and are now in limbo, waiting to continue their journey to some other place. Thousands of new refugees are now being added to the mix every week. And when fighting erupts in the capital Mogadishu or elsewhere in Somalia, as is the case this week, the flow of refugees into Dadaab can easily double.

Hajir has tried to make the best of the situation. Having come to the camp with one child, he now has a total of seven. He has built himself a small mud house and has been elected as the representative of his quarter. His wife sometimes sells fruit -- when she can buy it at a good price.

Essentially, Dadaab is no longer a camp but a city, a city with everything but industrial production. It has automobile repair shops and carpenters, health centers and bazaars, construction material dealers and brothels. The markets in Dadaab are well-stocked with products like fruit and corn, DVD players and the latest in mobile phones. According to studies, the monthly economy in Dadaab is worth $2 million to $3 million (€1.5 million to €2.2 million), and possibly more.

The camp is kept alive by foreign aid. The big United Nations organizations, and virtually all major international aid organizations, such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, CARE and USAID, Oxfam and World Vision, are present in Dadaab. These organizations have long been the most important employers in the camp.

But the camp is now reaching its limits, with hundreds of refugees camping out in the open and thousands in tents. New plots of land are not approved, and any new huts built outside the camp limits are immediately demolished. "If we had only a partial breakdown of the water supply, the resulting outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases would produce a humanitarian disaster," says Yves Horent, director of the European Union's ECHO Technical Assistance agency in Kenya. Markus Dielinger, head of GTZ, a German technical aid organization, in Dadaab, is also concerned that conditions could deteriorate. "As soon as the fighting increases in Somalia, we promptly receive hundreds of additional refugees. And now, because of the rainy season, we have an elevated risk of malaria."

Deko, a 20-year-old Somali woman who fled from Mogadishu, is one of the recent arrivals. "There was fighting all around our house," she reports. "When the heavy machine-gun fire started, we decided to leave." In the confusion of flight, she lost her parents and siblings and decided to make her own way to the Somali-Kenyan border.

After a week of marching and traveling by vehicle, Deko reached Dadaab. "I am happy to be in a safe place," she says. "But I won't stay long, because I want to find my family."

That could prove difficult, especially given the difficulties Somali refugees face en route to Dadaab, as described in a report released by Human Rights Watch a few weeks ago.

According to the report, human traffickers smuggle most of the refugees across the border, which has been closed since 2007. The Kenyan police routinely stop the transports on the road to Dadaab. Then men are driven out of the vehicles, and the women and children are only allowed to continue on their way in return for substantial bribes.

But there is also plenty of cruelty in the camp itself. At its seven police stations, women run the risk of being raped. Alternatively, if they refuse to pay yet another bribe, they can be beaten, kicked or sent back to Somalia.

Refugees who wish to continue to Nairobi must buy a ticket that already includes bribes for the police. The bridge across the Tana River near Garissa is especially notorious. Every vehicle traveling to Nairobi must cross the bridge, where the Kenyan police have set up a permanent checkpoint. The police station, conveniently enough, is next to the checkpoint -- a goldmine for the police officers, who normally collect $50 (€37) for each Somali. Anyone unable to pay is either locked up or forced to turn around.

The camp is an enormous problem for Kenya. It is overcrowded, and the UNHCR, in its efforts to place the refugees elsewhere, cannot keep up with the onslaught of new refugees.

The calculation is simple enough. Even if the UNHCR manages to place 8,600 refugees this year, the camp will continue to grow rapidly. Nearby towns are beginning to sound the alarm. Residents there are angry that the camps receive food shipments and have dozens of health centers, and that many wells are being drilled for the camps. In addition, crime is on the rise and the Somalis have cut down anything that burns within a wide perimeter surrounding the camp, using the wood to cook their meals.

Even those refugees that have left the camp or have managed to avoid it aren't exactly welcomed with open arms by Kenyans. Most of them continue to Nairobi, where Eastleigh, a Somali neighborhood, has become one of the city's fastest-growing districts. And because Somalis are extremely enterprising, making themselves at home in everything from the retail trade to real estate, Kenyans are becoming increasingly envious of the adaptable newcomers.

To ease the problem, the government in Nairobi would like to build a new camp for Somali refugees 1,500 kilometers (938 miles) away, in Kakuma near the Sudanese border. Refugees from Sudan are already camped out in the area, and the Kenyans would like to relocate 50,000 residents of Dadaab, in addition to sending all new arrivals directly to Kakuma. But the logistical challenges are huge, which could ultimately doom the project.

In an urgent appeal issued a few days ago, the 14 biggest donors for Dadaab, including the United States, Japan, Great Britain and Germany, sharply criticized the government's plans. Calling their efforts an "urgent intervention," they advocate building a new, fourth camp in Dadaab. "We are alarmed by the rapid decline in the standard of living and increasingly difficult access to basic services, such as water, sanitary facilities and shelter," the letter reads. "The current rainfall is overstretching the capacity of the UN refugee agency and could lead to epidemics, the destruction of buildings and unacceptable loss of human life." Help is "urgently needed."

The countries issuing the appeal want the government in Nairobi to make 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of land available, which the district administration has already approved. According to the letter, overpopulation in the existing camps could lead to a cholera outbreak and growing tensions between the refugees and residents of smaller surrounding cities.

German Ambassador Walter Lindner signed the appeal because "something has to happen." But others who signed the document warn: "We cannot overburden the Kenyans."

Fighting has flared up again in Somalia, the government in Kenya is perplexed, and the donors are trying to gain control over a bleak political situation with millions in donations. Meanwhile, refugee Hajir continues to wait. "I would never have thought that I would be here for this long," he says. "I am very disappointed by my country. There is no hope of return. In fact, my only chance is to go to another country, like Canada or the United States."

Many in Dadaab have similar hopes.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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