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.
The Westgate attack was, for those of us familiar with the region, never a matter of if but of when. Nairobi is a mere three-hour plane ride to Dadaab. It is on the frontline of the conflict with Somalia. Yet behind the manicured walls of its upscale malls, you can easily slip into a pleasurable feeling of distance from the poverty around you that is silently encroaching upon your invulnerability. Nairobi’s posh hotels and glittering boutiques lilt you into a false sense of security and comfort. But its Western amenities are not an answer to the problems in the region; they are simply distractions from them.
The actions of Al-Shabaab are repugnant, but one needs to be careful in the aftermath of Westgate—just as at the height of Somali pirate attacks a few years back—to think clearly about the real forces behind this violence. In many ways, the Somali pirates are the twins of Al-Shabaab militants. Their ranks draw from the same crop of hungry young men: poor, uneducated kids who know they probably won’t live to see their 30th birthday and therefore wonder, Why not plunder a ship or blow up a mall?
In its heyday, Al-Shabaab offered food, security and a sense of belonging under the rubric of Jihad. In recent years, Al-Qaeda forces have infiltrated Al-Shabaab, but this does not refute the underlying fact that Al-Shabaab, like the pirates, uses the perceived wrong of foreign encroachment into Somalia territory to justify its actions.
The pirates asked the question, “What else can we do?” Al-Shabaab asks, “How else can we avenge?” Both feed off a narrative of despair. Only in a vacuum of hope does a nihilistic group like Al-Shabaab find its footing. Thus, in order to stop Al-Shabaab, we have to change the narrative, and the economic conditions, that fuel them.
Ironically, many of the victims at Westgate were poor or middle-class Kenyans. Yet the perception of the victim’s affluence, drawn from what Westgate signifies, is most important for the group. This attack was a gauntlet thrown down in a war between rich and poor in the region—a misguided rallying cry on behalf of the desperate.
Not all Somalis agree with Al-Shabaab. Most, whether they reside in their native country or Dadaab, are peaceful people who just want a chance to thrive. However, there have been reports that Al-Shabaab may be working out of Dadaab. If this were true, it would not be surprising, if only because vacuums of hope allow for radicalism to flourish. And Dadaab, alongside Somalia, is one of the world’s most hopeless places.
Great strides have been made in Somalia in recent years. Parts of Mogadishu are relatively secure again. Puntland and Somaliland, independent regions of the fractious nation, are working hard to provide its residents with reasons to hope, thanks in part to wealthy members of the Somali diaspora and to Western aid. But most of the world only hears about Somalia via sensational news stories about pirates and $100-million Hollywood thrillers like Captain Phillips. Network executives yawn at the notion of digging into the root cause of such violence—poverty—and Western governments invest little in long-term solutions for Dadaab and Somalia, even as they flaunt their power by throwing millions of dollars at attempts to prosecute high-profile pirates. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for a generation of children who will know no other reality than the misery of the world’s largest permanent refugee camp.