Kenyan camps are not a long-term solution

In theory, refugee camps are temporary spaces created in response to emergencies, where displaced people live before they are either repatriated of their own will in a post-conflict setting, or are settled safely in a legal agreement made with a third country. In reality, Kenya’s two major refugee camp settlements, Dadaab and Kakuma, reflect protracted situations of uncertainty in which tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds live together in often-deplorable conditions with little physical safety, restricted mobility and an imposed reliance on aid.

The camp settlement of Dadaab in Kenya is the world’s largest refugee camp complex. It is not entirely accurate to describe it as a ‘camp’ as it is rather a complex containing five sub-camps. Many refugees who live in Dadaab have not stepped foot outside of the camps since the complex officially opened in 1991. Dadaab’s population of over 300,000 continues to rise with thousands of new arrivals every month. Kakuma was opened a year later in 1992 and is a sprawling complex close to the border of South Sudan. The area officially contains three sub camps though it is growing every day. The population of Kakuma is currently estimated at 180,000. During 2014 Kakuma officially became unable to accept new arrivals and subsequently, UNHCR has acquired land from the Kenyan government to begin its expansion.

In theory, camps make it easier to deliver direct aid such as medical assistance to refugees. While some services such as vaccinations are able to be effectively delivered in a camp context, the squalid rural conditions and poor hygiene and sanitation of camps mean that disease spreads quickly and fatalities can be high. Research indicates that newly arrived Somali refugees to Dagahaley camp within Dadaab experience higher levels of measles, malnutrition and mortality than other refugees in Kenya. Within Dadaab, Somali refugee women have been found to suffer from a drastic transformation of self-perception “engendered by the precariousness of the conditions prevailing in the camps: insecurity; diminishing rations; and uncertain futures”. Most women in Dadaab are reported to live permanently afraid of rape, a fear that is warranted considering the extremely high rates of sexual assault against women.

Refugees in both Dadaab and Kakuma receive rations and basic provisions to survive. However, without free engagement in consumption practices beyond what is supplied by relief agencies and donors, ‘normality’ often becomes a distant memory and the monotony of the camp experience disempowers refugees and drastically limits their capacities to participate in their own decision-making processes. For refugees in Kakuma, without the sanctioned freedom to consume goods and services, and to otherwise participate in economic activity beyond receipt of aid, refugees often suffer from what Rahul Oka calls “relief-induced agonism”. 

Most rations given to refugees in Dadaab are insufficient both culturally and calorically. The Somali diet traditionally includes a kind of flat bread, anjero, but Somali refugees in Dadaab often go as much as a year without any flour to prepare this food. Refugee diet rations in Dadaab seldom contain vegetables and legumes, which are both nutritionally and culturally vital. The WFP and MSF often report widespread malnutrition in this camp.

Refugees who have fled from conflict situations often suffer from mental illnesses triggered by factors such as trauma, a disruption to social life and the fragmentation of kinship structures. Protracted situations of encampment coupled with uncertainty about the future greatly exacerbate these negative mental health outcomes for refugees. Feelings of hopelessness are common across people living in Kenya’s refugee camps.

Refugees living in both Dadaab and Kakuma are not able to (permissibly) exit these areas without first obtaining a movement permit to do so, leaving them fixed in volatile security situations. Dadaab and Kakuma offer little personal security and acts of random violence within the camps, including murders, stabbings and lootings, happen so frequently that they are seen as commonplace occurrences by many. According to reports, refugees’ own family and community members perpetrate the majority of violence against refugees in these camps. UNHCR workers within the camps have reported extremely high incidences of domestic violence, allegedly made worse by conditions of extreme stress, for almost two decades.

Young men, especially of South Sudanese and Somali origin, are particularly vulnerable in camps because they are often conscripted from within Kakuma to return to their countries of origin and fight with rebel and militia groups. There are also reports of unaccompanied minors, both male and female, being sexually and physically abused.  The inter-ethnic clashes transpiring in other nations also spill into camps as communities are forced to live in close proximity to one another, fostering hostility. An example of this can be seen in Kakuma in 2014 when violence broke out between members of the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups of South Sudan. Dozens of murders occurred, with perpetrators and victims on both sides, after a Dinka man allegedly raped a nine-year-old Nuer girl and left her in a coma. Academic literature suggests that for most encamped refugees in Kenya, resettlement in an industrial nation is not just a potential solution but instead the ‘ultimate’ goal that preoccupies them. These resettlement dreams are often unrealistic as third country agreements only meet a small percentage of offshore refugee demand. This literature suggests that for some refugees, the idea of living in Kakuma has been positively associated with a number of, perhaps unsubstantiated, relief benefits. As Sommers has argued, ‘Kakuma’s fabled opportunities – scholarships, health services, and resettlement – seem more appealing when the hardships of food and personal insecurity are not taken into account’.

Given all of these harsh realities of life in Kenyan refugee camps, academics, journalists and one particularly vocal ex-UN humanitarian continue to propose a positive alternative view of camps in which they could flourish and transform into urban sanctuaries for their inhabitants. They posit that there is an untapped potential within camps and that they can become thriving and urban economic centres driven by refugees.

The notion that Kenyan camps are becoming like cities is enticing. But is it accurate? Jeff Crisp recently criticised journalists for making similar arguments about Zaatari camp in Jordan. The danger in jumping on the “camp that became a city” bandwagon is to ignore the inherently futile and precarious nature of life in a camp. Just because people are making the most of their situation, does not mean that the situation itself could become a positive solution. How can it be possible to have a free, normal and ‘urban’ life in a place where your movement is restricted, you live in constant fear of violence and you are forced to depend on aid rations? Should Kenya’s refugee camps ever become part of a sustainable future for refugees? In their current form, with the negative psychosocial and health outcomes that they create in a hostile and xenophobic environment, I certainly believe not.

Cover image: Dadaab, Kenya, 22 January 2016 ©European Union/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

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