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The Clock Is Ticking for a Generation of Children in the World's Largest Permanent Refugee Camp

If Dadaab were actually counted as a city, it would be Kenya’s third or fourth most populous. Unfortunately, the fates of its inhabitants are largely ignored.
 
 
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 Whirling red dust clouds the outskirts of a massive temporary “city,” erected on scorching earth, that is now the size of Cleveland, Ohio. A patchwork of plastic bags—the roofs of people’s homes—stretches for miles and miles. This is Dadaab, the world’s largest permanent refugee camp.

 

Women, children, and the elderly, mostly from war-ravaged Somalia, have found their way to this desolate United Nations refugee camp by foot, in harrowing journeys that last several days. 500,000 people have passed through the gates of Dadaab, roughly 60 miles from the Somali border, not knowing that for most this place is a dead end. Yet these resilient souls make a life for themselves in impossible conditions.

If Dadaab were actually counted as a city, it would be Kenya’s third or fourth most populous. Yet it’s not counted; it doesn’t exist. It’s a liminal space, neither here nor there, and its inhabitants exist between worlds interminably. Some have lived in its confines for up to 24 years, since Somalia began to disintegrate. The UN and a smattering of NGOs do their best to provide Dadaab’s residents with basic services. Soccer games and a bustling market of smuggled goods create a simulacrum of normal life. But Dadaab is not normal.

Dadaab is a hotbed of crime, disease and increasingly, radicalism. As a result, Kenya will not recognize Dadaab’s inhabitants as citizens, even if they were born there, and wishes they would return to Somalia. Former president Mwai Kibaki stated his country’s position clearly at a 2012 conference: “ Kenya can no longer continue carrying the burden.” As for Western nations, it’s simply easier to maintain the status quo than to find a solution. No leader will admit that for the people who grew up there, Dadaab is home.  

If Dadaab were to close today, where would the refugees go? What kind of life awaits them in Somalia after years, even decades, of living in a Kenyan refugee camp? Could they assimilate into a Kenya that resents them? What will become of 500,000 people rotting in the middle of the desert? These are burning questions nobody seems to acknowledge. So the problem is swept under the rug and wished away. But it just gets worse.

For 30 years, Somalia, the main feeder for Dadaab, has devolved into a failed state. This is the legacy of Siad Barre, who ruled Somalia with an iron fist from 1969 to 1991, during which time he held the dubious distinction of support from both the Soviet Union and the United States. Each superpower alternated spending millions of dollars to bolster his oppressive regime according the geopolitics of the moment. Once the Cold War ended, however, support for Barre’s cruel dictatorship dried up. He quickly lost control, and the various clans comprising Somalia have fought over national resources on and off since his ouster. Thanks to a combination of Barre’s failed socialist policies, decades of violence and endemic corruption, an estimated 3.7 million Somalis are today in need of immediate assistance. Over 1.3 million people have been displaced, most of them settling in neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. At least 550,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the Somali civil war in 1991. As a country, Somalia is very sick, and the symptoms of its sickness contaminate its neighbors and the world at regular intervals.  

On September 21, a group of Al-Shabaab militants—mostly Somali, though reports indicate that some suspects may be citizens of Norway or the United States—stormed Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, a symbol of East African prosperity. Sixty-one civilians, many of them women and children, were slaughtered as they enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of cooking classes and grocery shopping. 

 
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