The Dadaab Refugee Complex: A Powder Keg and It’s Giving Off Sparks

Mounting tensions in the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya have escalated to explosive levels in recent weeks. Built over 20 years ago with a maximum capacity of 90,000 refugees, the complex now houses more than 463,000 registered refugees (largely from neighboring Somalia) and several thousand more unregistered. While the numbers themselves place undue pressure on the complex, the October 2011 Kenyan incursion into Somalia to combat the extremist group al Shabaab led to a sharp rise in attacks from Shabaab sympathizers in the camps, as well as a harsh response and widespread allegations of abuse by Kenyan police. The insecurity has placed several constraints on the operations of nongovernmental organizations in the complex, reducing assistance to life-saving services. Sexual violence has become endemic, and police abuse and inaction commonplace and resented by the refugees. A coordinated response from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Kenyan government, and international community is critical to prevent this volatile stew from erupting into deadly violence.

Q1: What is Dadaab and who lives there?

A1: The northeastern Kenyan city of Dadaab is home to the world’s largest refugee population. The Dadaab refugee complex currently contains three fully functional camps—Dagahaley, Hagadera, and Ifo—with approval recently granted for Ifo 2, an extension camp that took four years to get Kenyan authorization. Kambioos, another extension camp slated to house 200,000 refugees, is still awaiting Kenyan government approval. Though not officially recognized or properly outfitted with amenities, Kambioos camp is already home to over 12,000 refugees. The camps are managed by UNHCR in partnership with the Kenyan government’s Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA). Several international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) assist with the management of the camps and the provision of assistance to the population.

Dadaab was originally established in 1991 to house refugees from the Somali civil war. Twenty years of conflict and natural disasters in Somalia have generated a continuous flow of Somalis into Dadaab. Many of the Somali refugees have lived in the settlement for almost two decades. While the complex has an official population, the self-settled, unregistered refugees on the outskirts of the camps suggest total numbers close to 500,000. In a February 23 speech in London, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya put the number in the Dadaab camps at 630,000. Because the Kenyan DRA ceased registration of new arrivals in October 2011, the actual number of refugees in Dadaab remains unknown.

Q2: What are the current living conditions in Dadaab?

A2: Given that the complex houses at least five times the number of refugees it was originally built for, the camps are overcrowded, infrastructure inadequate, and resources overstretched. Further, the complex is located on a flood plain, rendering the camps inaccessible for extended periods during the rainy season and making the delivery of life-saving food, water, health care, and medical supplies unreliable. Flooding last fall forced nearly 10,000 refugees to leave Ifo 2. Flooding also creates an opportunistic environment for communicable diseases like cholera and acute watery diarrhea, both of which are present in all the camps.

Conditions in Dadaab have deteriorated precipitously since the government of Kenya ceased registration of new arrivals. The registration process not only allows for the collection of basic demographic data, but enables NGOs to identify unaccompanied children and other vulnerable populations, provide health screening, and ensure that all refugee children have essential vaccinations. It also ensures that camp managers know who is in the camps and where the registered new arrivals are assigned to live. Self-settled populations receive none of these services.

These unregistered new arrivals are in a particularly precarious position, because without registration they are not eligible for UNHCR-provided assistance and are technically illegal aliens subject to arrest and deportation. Because they do not have food ration cards, they depend on other refugees, reducing the food for those families and increasing malnutrition among both registered and unregistered populations. Since the new arrivals are no longer vaccinated, there has been a worrisome increase in communicable diseases.

Heightened insecurity in the camps has also forced UNHCR and its partners to curtail the full range of humanitarian assistance usually provided in refugee camps to only food, water, sanitation, and emergency health. Al Shabaab activities have led the Kenyan government to require all aid workers to travel with police escorts in the camps. Insufficient numbers of police have hobbled humanitarian operations. Between September 2011 and January 2012 nearly 20 security incidents were reported in the camps, causing frequent disruptions to even life-saving services. Several of the key NGOs operating in the camps are now considering withdrawal from Dadaab.

Q3: Why has Dadaab become a powder keg?

A3: Since the Kenyan incursion into southern Somalia last October, security conditions in Dadaab have deteriorated to a critical level. Al Shabaab appears to have infiltrated the complex and may be using the camps as a platform to extend its operations to other parts of Kenya. As a result, kidnappings and assaults have become more common, and ominously, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks have also begun to appear with some regularity along the roads within the complex. Bombings and killings have increased in frequency.

Refugees have been victimized both by al Shabaab partisans and the Kenyan police. Community Peace and Safety Teams (CPSTs), community policing groups created and led by the refugees themselves, have been critical to curtailing violence and gathering information on the perpetrators. Refugees who cooperate with Kenyan authorities, however, have been threatened, assaulted, and in some cases killed. At the end of last year, two community leaders in Hagadera and Ifo camps were targeted and killed by al Shabaab sympathizers, because they were perceived as assisting the police.

Lack of cooperation by refugees with the Kenyan police has been met with brutality and arrest. Many refugees have been injured in police security operations. IED incidents sometimes result in the rounding up of 200 to 300 refugees, many of whom are brutally beaten. Tensions between the refugees and the Kenyan police have risen to dangerous levels.

Q4: What can be done to ease tensions in Dadaab?

A4: The present situation in Dadaab imposes a level of suffering on the Somali refugee population that is unnecessary and preventable. The current situation has the very real potential to devolve into widespread camp violence with countless unnecessary injuries and deaths. Moreover, the growing disregard for the well-being of the refugee population and the growing refugee hostility toward Kenyan authorities pose a threat not just to the security of the refugees themselves, but offers the potential for a sympathetic platform for al Shabaab adherents to launch attacks deeper in Kenya. The situation in the camps is manageable if actions are taken immediately by UNHCR, the Kenyan government, and the international community.

The UNHCR protection function is severely understaffed. UNHCR is the sole international organization charged with the protection of refugees. Yet, it has had only a handful of protection officers for the entire Dadaab refugee population. In addition, the UNHCR officers are not based in the camps but in the UNHCR office in Dadaab town. This is unacceptable. UNCHR should immediately expand the number of protection officers assigned to the complex, and the officers should deploy throughout the camps with the Kenyan police and the CPSTs. This is a dangerous endeavor to be sure, but it is the responsibility of UNHCR.

In the past, the Kenyan government has been a generous host to refugees, but in recent years, Kenya has paid less and less attention to its obligations under international law with regard to its refugee populations. In 2007, Kenya closed its transit center in Liboi, subjecting Somali refugees to abuse by unscrupulous government officials and criminals as they make their way 80 kilometers to Dadaab.
Furthermore, the Kenyan government has consistently delayed building and authorizing new refugee camps, subjecting refugees to prolonged periods of substandard care. In October 2011, Kenya stopped registering newly arrived Somali refugees. This has led to deteriorating health conditions in the camps and widespread violence against Somali refugees. More generally, the Kenyan government has not fulfilled its obligation to protect the refugees within its border. Senior Kenyan officials are even discussing pushing the Somali refugees in Dadaab back into Somalia, the definition of refoulement and a violation of international law.

The government of Kenya should immediately and significantly increase the number of police who patrol Dadaab and demand professional behavior from its force there. Kenya should also immediately open the Liboi transit and reception centers at Dadaab and resume refugee registration. Finally, the Kenyan government should take all necessary measures to prevent the refoulement of Somali refugees.

The international community has remained noticeably silent on the deteriorating conditions in Dadaab and the abuse of Somali refugees. Refugee frustration and fear of an abusive police presence could lead to the radicalization of the refugee population, which would be an unfortunate consequence for both refugees and Kenyans. The international community should strongly impress upon UNHCR and the Kenyan government their obligations to protect Somali refugees.

Ambassador William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and in the early 1990s led USAID humanitarian assistance efforts in Somalia. Farha Tahir is program coordinator and research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


William J. Garvelink

Farha Tahir