These young Somalis refuse to go ‘home’ when Kenya closes the world’s largest refugee camp

Somali refugees run from the dust at Dadaab's Ifo camp, Jan. 8, 2007.

Like many refugees living in Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab camp, 20-year-old Abdi Mohammed worries what the complex’s pending closure will mean for his future. For him, it means leaving the only life and community he’s ever known — and perhaps abandoning his dream of practicing medicine.

“I wanted to become a doctor," said Mohammed, an ethnic Somali who attends a school run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "but the Kenyan government wants to destroy my dream by chasing us away.”  

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp complex in the world, with more than 300,000 residents, most of them Somalis. It’s slated to close in May. Kenyan officials have called the camp a breeding ground for terrorism, saying al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terrorists have plotted attacks there, including the massacre of 148 people at the nearby Garissa University College in 2015. The UN has denied those claims, arguing the government has failed to produce evidence.

“Not everyone here is a terrorist," Mohammed said. "They should deal with the few terrorists and allow us to continue with our studies because there are no schools in Somalia.”

An aerial view of the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, April 3, 2011.
An aerial view of the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, on April 3, 2011, is shown here.  Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Since the camp opened 26 years ago, an entire generation has grown up there. (On average, 1,000 babies are born in the camp every month, according to the UN.) For many of them, Dadaab is more than a refugee camp. It’s home.

Mohammed and some other young people who grew up in the camp are now vowing to ignore the government’s direction to repatriate to Somalia. They say they have few if any family ties there and face potential violence at the hands of al-Shabab fighters who run rampant on the other side of the Somali border, around 60 miles to the east.

“I would rather die here than go to Somalia,” said Mohammed, who lives with his parents, who are both 80 years old. “I was born here, and I have known this camp as a home for the all of my life. I would rather be settled in a third country if I have to go.”

Children walk together among makeshift homes, or
Children walk together among makeshift homes, or "tukuls," on the outskirts of the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, Aug. 31, 2011. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Shirlif Hassan, 29, is worried, too. He lives in the Ifo camp, one of five that make up Dadaab, and his story is a common one.

“I came with my mother, on her back,” he recalled, in tears. “After a long walk to the camp, we lost almost everything — arriving in the camp almost dead from starvation.”

His mother died after three months in the camp, leaving him behind as an infant.

Today, Hassan performs odd jobs to provide for his family. He, too, dreams that he will be among the estimated 2,000 that the United Nations manages to resettle to third countries annually. He vows never to set foot in Somalia. 

“I can’t go back to Somalia, but I can go to another country which has peace,” he said. “Somalia is very insecure. I don’t know how I will start life again under the leadership of al-Shabab.”

Hassan is right about Somalia’s security situation. The country has suffered through more than two decades of civil war, famine and environmental crises. While the central government has managed to bring improved safety and relative prosperity to the capital of Mogadishu, some other regions of the country have declared their independence and al-Shabab remains a potent force in remote areas.

Somali government soldiers secure the scene of an attack on a restaurant by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab in the capital Mogadishu, Oct. 1, 2016.
Somali government soldiers secure the scene of an attack on a restaurant by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab in the capital Mogadishu, Oct. 1, 2016.  Feisal Omar/Reuters

Those who have returned to Somalia, like 19-year-old high school student Nasra Adan, said they have faced violence, rape, beatings and forced recruitment into jihadist and anti-jihadist militias. Adan accused the Kenyan government and the UN of forcing refugees like her out before Somalia is ready to accept them.

“I couldn’t survive in Somalia,” said Adan, who fled back to Dadaab a month after the UN repatriated her to the Somali city of Kismayo on the Indian Ocean last year. “There are no schools, health facilities, toilets and showers. There is rape everywhere. Girls and boys sleep together in one tent.”

The plight of refugees like Adan has spurred world leaders to advocate against the closure of the camp.

When Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai visited Dadaab last year on her 19th birthday, she warned that closing the camp could leave a “generation lost.”

“If the camp is closed and its residents are moved to Somalia where there are few schools, the girls will be without education,” said Yousafzai, who won her prize for advocating for girls' schooling in Pakistan despite the Taliban’s threats to her and other students. She was shot in the head by the militants in 2012.

Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai attends celebrations to mark her 19th birthday at the Nasib Secondary School in Ifo2 area of Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 12, 2016.
Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai attends celebrations to mark her 19th birthday at the Nasib Secondary School in Ifo2 area of Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 12, 2016.Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

It’s hard to know for sure whether Kenya will follow through on its plan to close the camp in May. The Kenyan government announced it would close Dadaab three months after the Garissa attack. But the United States, other Western governments and the UN intervened and prevailed upon Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to delay the closure. Kenyan officials then said last May that they planned to close the camp by November, but delayed the shutdown by six months after UN officials asked for more time to relocate residents. Meanwhile, human rights observers warn that some of the repatriations currently underway are not fully voluntary.

Now the UN is again urging the Kenyan government to postpone the closure and is calling on the international community to make adequate investments to improve security and stability in Somalia.

“Right now, Somalia is not really ripe for wide-scale mass returns,” said UN refugee agency spokesman Andreas Needham in a statement.

Back in the camp, Mohammed hopes the international community can convince the Kenyan government to reverse its decision so he can continue his studies.

“My future belongs here,” he said. “It’s in Dadaab where I can go to school and brighten my future. I can’t leave.”

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