A new book looks at life in the world’s largest refugee camp

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In Kenya, 60 miles west of the Somali border, sits the largest refugee camp in the world: Dadaab. There, on a flat, red plain surrounded by desert and thorn trees, the mud and tent metropolis is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them Somali. In the local dialect, Dadaab means “the rocky hard place,” a good description of the conditions in which its residents live.

The camp, managed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), lacks proper sanitation and housing. It functions on an economy that helps people with money and devastates those without it. And its resettlement program consists of a lottery that allows winners at random to be sent abroad. The process leaves many in despair.

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After spending more than six years in the region, author Ben Rawlence has written "City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp." Rawlence uses the stories of nine residents to illuminate the wider political and social forces that keep roughly half a million residents from finding their way out (the UNHCR lists 331,000 registered refugees in Dadaab, but Rawlence estimates about half a million people are there).

The crisis in Somalia began with the civil war that started in the 1980s. The war produced new conflicts, including the creation of nationalist terror organization al-Shabaab. The country then faced an historic famine in 2011 that claimed 260,000 lives. At one point, more than 1,000 Somalis were arriving to Dadaab every day. In the past three decades, Rawlence writes, as many as half of Somalis have fled their homes. The UNHCR describes the country’s refugee crisis as “one of the most protracted” in the world.

Rawlence first went to Dadaab in 2010, when he was working for Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa, the eastern peninsula of the African continent comprised of Somalia and Ethiopia. After leaving the NGO, he stayed in the region and worked as a journalist, covering the intricacies of life in Dadaab for The Guardian and other western outlets. Rawlence describes the refugee management system he saw in Dadaab as unbalanced and unfair — a broken system that needs fixing.

I spoke with Rawlence recently about life in Dadaab, the realities of radicalization, and what his research can teach us about how to help refugees around the world.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Christopher Zumski Finke: Can you describe what life is like in Dadaab?

Ben Rawlence: The conditions are appalling. People are living in substandard, temporary shelter, huts, tents. There’s no plumbing, there’s no sanitation. When the influx came in 2011 because of the famine, the crowding was determined to be an international humanitarian emergency by Oxfam. Since then we’ve had annual cuts in food rations because the World Food Programme is short on funds. People are literally starving in the camps. Now, that’s not everyone, that’s mostly the vulnerable ones: children, newborns, the elderly, people who have no other form of income.

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A woman rations cooking oil in Dadaab.Ben Rawlence

Zumski Finke: What keeps people there?

Rawlence: They are there because there is no solution to the war in Somalia, and the international community is reluctant to resettle people—it takes an incredibly long time—and because the Kenyan government does not want refugees to integrate into Kenyan society. So they keep them in the camp.

Zumski Finke: A young man you write about in your book, Guled, was kidnapped by al-Shabaab, forced into the life of a child soldier, escaped, and managed to get to Dadaab. Can you talk about the situation that Guled finds himself in now, having been forced into a terrorist network?

Rawlence: The irony is that a child soldier should be one of the most deserving of resettlement and international protection. Life in the camp holds certain risk for Guled because of what happened to him, yet he is somebody who is least likely to benefit from it because of his association with al-Shabaab. It shows you how crazy, how politicized, and unfortunate the resettlement process is.

Zumski Finke: Guled’s story highlights the concern that refugee camps can be breeding grounds for radicalization and terrorist organizations.

Rawlence: Most people in Dadaab have fled from al-Shabaab.

If you get caught in Somalia with a ration card from the UN you can be arrested and executed for taking the food of the infidels. So most of the refugees have a negative attitude toward al-Shabaab.

Seeing the camps through the eyes of the people gives you a sense of how marginal the question of radicalization is for them in their daily lives. It’s just not an issue; it’s a side show. The only way it really impacts them is that it encourages media, the Kenyan government, and international policy into heavy-handed reactions. Terrorism has become the only lens through which they can view people in the region.

Zumski Finke: One of things I hear over and over from people who work with refugees is that they are fleeing from terrorism, they’re not terrorists.

Rawlence: It’s worth remembering that the problem of radicalization exists in all communities and in all countries. It takes an Islamic form in certain contexts but its not peculiar to refugees at all.

There are plenty of people who are radicalized in the United States, to the point that they are willing to take up arms, but it’s not necessarily in the service of an Islamic organization. It’s the same in the U.K.. We have some people who are radicalized and going to fight with ISIS who were born here as Christians. It’s not an experience that correlates with refugees.

Zumski Finke: So what’s the solution to these fears about radicalization?

Rawlence: The challenge is to monitor people who are actually dangerous, wherever they are, without excluding whole populations on the basis of an affiliation. Saying because you are Somali, we are not going to accept you as a refugee because you might be al-Shabaab is like saying, we’re not going to take white Christians from the United States because you might have active shooter tendencies.

Zumski Finke: This was meant to be a temporary settlement, right? But today three generations of people are living in Dadaab. Could one solution be creating permanent infrastructure, and accepting this as a real city?

Rawlence: It’s something that is happening anyway. It would be better if it happened in a managed way with proper sanitation, and in a way that the Kenyan government could take advantage of—use it as a strategic asset. They could tax it and enlist people as allies to achieve their goals of peace in Somalia.

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The market in Dadaab.Ben Rawlence

Zumski Finke: One way out of Dadaab is resettlement through UNHCR. How does the potential of resettling to places like the United States or Australia affect the daily lives of Dadaab residents?

Rawlence: It’s the only thing that keeps some people alive. They’re all expecting one day they will win the lottery and have a future in an economy and society where they can make a living. It’s incredibly important in the cultural imagination of life in the camp. I can’t overstate it for you.

It causes people to have nervous breakdowns and depression because they hope for it and it doesn’t happen. They get anxious, they get very jealous when their friends get it and they don’t. It shapes their whole way of life.

Zumski Finke: In 2011, you wrote, “early warning was a waste of time—there would have to be people dying on television before the money from rich governments would flow.”

Today, the world has a refugee crisis, and we see people dying on our TVs. What do you make of the global response to the refugee crisis?

Rawlence: I think awareness is much better than it has been, but what’s curious is that it took so long for everyone to wake up. The number of people coming from sub-Saharan Africa into Lampedusa, Greece, and Bulgaria for the last 10 years has been in the tens of thousands every year. Pushing to hundreds of thousands, in fact.

Hundreds of people drowned in boats in Lampedusa in 2012 and 2013. The question for me is why didn’t that make headlines and now it is? It’s not just because people are dying, it’s because people are making it to Europe in numbers impossible to ignore.

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Mr. Dube, one of the Dadaab residents profiled in "City of Thorns."Ben Rawlence

Zumski Finke: Has the increased attention had any impact in Dadaab?

Rawlence: The global discussions are good. There are discussions of high level panels and there’s more awareness of the protracted situation of refugees. That’s all good. But the short term focus on Syria has been very damaging in Dadaab because it means that rations have been cut to pay for food for the Syrians. So Syrians aren’t getting ration cuts but Dadaab has seen ration cuts two years in a row. Also Syrians are getting priority with resettlement questions, when the people of Dadaab have been there much longer and are much more deserving of resettlement.

In many ways it’s not fair. And they feel that and it’s quite defeating that Syrians are getting the limelight and the benefit of that attention.

Zumski Finke: You said Syrians are getting attention but Somalis in Dadaab are more deserving. What does that mean?

Rawlence: Resettlement is for populations that are vulnerable and protracted. The people in Dadaab are vulnerable, and they’ve met the protracted criteria many times over. They’ve been there 25 years. And many are more vulnerable because they don’t have enough to eat.

Syrians refugees in the camps are being given enough to eat. The people in Dadaab had rations cut 50 percent two years ago, and 30 percent this year. Vulnerable single mothers with children are dying in Dadaab because the international community doesn’t have the money to feed them, despite being under our custody and our protection.

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A house in Dadaab. Ben Rawlence

Zumski Finke: The way you describe international aid, it sounds like there is a finite amount of food and money.

Rawlence: Unfortunately the international agencies that manage these crises are not fully funded. Even with record amounts of funding like this year, that amount is not enough to cope with all the people we are asking them to look after.

Every year the UN will make an appeal for rich countries to fund needy countries for various amounts. Those rich countries aren’t funding Somalia, but they’re funding Syria because Syria is in the news and because Syria is sending people their way and they want them to be looked after somewhere else. Rich countries are making those decisions, and people are dying as a consequence.

Zumski Finke: What can rich countries do to aid this crisis? What don’t we know that we should be doing?

Rawlence: There’s a whole host of things we don’t understand. And there’s a host of things we can’t control. But there is an escalating minimum of goals that we should aim for.

Every ““”“”“”“”“”“”“”person of concern,” (the UN’s term for refugees) should be fed, clothed, and given shelter.

You can talk about all the other stuff later on, all the resettlements and all the politics around how you share out people. We should ensure that UNHCR appeals for persons of concern are fully funded—that we’re not experiencing things like rations cuts. That is barbaric and inhumane. You can’t lock people up in a camp and not feed them. That is a crime against humanity.

Zumski Finke: Is there a way we can improve the resettlement process?

Rawlence: The basic minimum is you need to feed people, you need to house them, and then you can look at resettlement. The resettlement process is actually all laid out in UNHCR agreements. What happens is countries refuse to take the number of people the UNHCR requires them to take, and then they want to cherry pick who they’re taking.

There is a perfectly good, fair system that could work if you took politics, fearmongering, and Islamophobia out of the equation.

Zumski Finke: So what about people who want to do something?

Rawlence: For citizens who are concerned, we need a way of forcing our governments to ensure that every refugee in the world is at least fed, and has enough food to stay alive.

Zumski Finke: Is there anything specific that people can do to help?

Rawlence: There are some things you can do immediately, like give money to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) who run health services in the camps, or the The Windle Trust that sponsors education in the camps.

And there are some good ideas out there that could be scaled up. For example, Canada has a great program called World University Service Canada that sponsors 20 refugee students a year and gives them a resettlement slot in Canada linked to a full ride for a bachelor’s degree—this is the story of Kheyro, one of the residents profiled in the book.

I think it would be great if US universities got together and offered to take one refugee student each as part of the government’s resettlement quota and gave each of them a full-ride scholarship. These kids are super smart, highly motivated, and it is one of the best ways to help the refugee community.

This story was originally published by YES! Magazine, a nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political, and environmental challenges. 

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