The Silver Lining in Kenya’s Desire to Shut Dadaab Refugee Camp


For this children born in exile Dadaab is the only home they know

Somaliland sun- The Kenyan decision to shut down the world’s largest refugee camp of Dadab, despite all the outcries from international humanitarian organizations, is a huge favor for the residents of the camp.

Yesterday, The president of Somalia in an interview with BBC Somali Service warned against forceful repatriation of refugees, while emphasizing Somalia’s desire for the refugees to return.

And he is right. The Somali refugees need the repatriation even more than Kenya needs it for its security concerns.

Dire Situation

Dadab which was opened twenty five years ago to host 90 thousand Somalis fleeing the war, is now home to more than three hundred thousands refugees. There are children born in the camp for parents who were themselves born in the camp. It’s is a trans-generational displacement.

Although the camp has 42 schools, twenty two hospitals and health centers, numerous restaurants and countless shops, people there lead severely handicapped lives. They overwhelmingly rely on food rations, and their movement is restricted. They can not engage in meaningful businesses due to limitations on their mobility, and neither they can look for jobs outside the camp.

Everything in the camp is meant to be temporary, even buildings are. Building permanent houses are prohibited. Yet, it has been twenty five years.

Live in refugee camps never grants people a chance to reach their potential, not even after quarter a century. And Dadab camp is no different.There is a thick and visible, not made of a glass but rather from concrete ceiling for what people there can do with their lives.

Opportunity Cost

Beside the limits to what live can be in the camp, there is a real opportunity cost for the refugees’  stay in Kenya any longer.  Country is becoming stable with the defeat of Alshabab, and state building is accelerating both in federal and regional levels. The economy also despite all difficulties seems to be recovering.

It is almost like a new start for the country after twenty five years, and everyone who is there have the same head start, while who is absent is risking to be left behind.

This dynamic can be understood by looking back to the early days of Somaliland and voluntarily repatriation of refugees after the civil war. There were two waves of refugees homecoming; one right after the declaration of independence; and the other one in early 2000s.

Those early comers faced tough situation where security was so volatile, education system totally broken, and healthcare almost non-existent. In the face of that stark realities, some people prefered the comfort of the refugee camps.

Today one look at the neighborhoods where the late repatriates were settled is enough to demonstrate what their late arrival has cost them. Kosar Village in Burao and State House neighborhood in Hargeisa are probably the most impoverished places in the two cities.

But after twenty five years, aren’t they already late? Probably not, at least not as late as that humble efforts of leg up couldn’t make up for it.

Preparations to made

Unless the closing of the camp, which is by itself a bless, is approached properly, the whole thing would be for nothing. Refugees may come back to the same camps they are expelled from, or embark on dangerous migrations. 

These people were in this “life on hold” situation for a long time, and their resettlement is not an easy undertaking. The country they are are supposed to resettle in, substantial number of them have never seen it before.

The Somali president, in The BBC interview,  rightfully called for a systematic, meaningful, and dignified return of refugees when the country is ready for them.

And what that dignified and meaningful return entail is resettlement in a welcoming environment where these estranged citizens can rebuild their lives. The most welcoming places for the returnees are probably their areas of origin, which for two thirds of them is Jubbaland State ( Gedo, lower and upper Jubba regions,) according to UNHCR data.

Having covered the land to settle in, what remains to consider is the basic infrastructure of schools and health centers.

I make it sound like an easy task, but it is not. The federal government should develop proper plans to address these two needs, and donors and humanitarian aid agencies ought to be happy about footing the bill. It will take the daunting task of caring for all those people of their shoulders once and for all.

Twenty five years is long time to be displaced from one’s country. It is time for Dadab residents to be brought home permanently. With the Kenyan desire, the improvements in security and state functioning in the country, there is a real chance to do just that, and do it right.

Abdilahi Hasan ‘Plastario’

Independent Journalists 

Dhaka Bangladesh