Kenya's Permanent Refugees: The Camps that Became Cities

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Somali refugees wait in line at a processing center for new arrivals in Dadaab, Kenya.

The Dadaab refugee camps in eastern Kenya are huge but they make themselves known slowly. After passing through the city of Garissa, you travel for a couple of hours along a dusty track and come to a derelict checkpoint. A soldier sitting in the shade waves cars past and goes back to chatting with the friends who have come to keep him company.

Beyond the checkpoint is the town of Dadaab, home to about 70,000 camel herders and farmers. Among this local population, refugees from all over Africa live in three locations. If you count them together, the trio of camps would be Kenya's fourth largest city. Each one feels a lot like a city, too. They have internet cafes, pharmacies, auto repair shops, and bus depots. But then, people have had a long time to get settled in.

This year 2011, Dadaab will mark the 20th year since refugees started arriving here. Most are fleeing the war in Somalia, but others are citizens of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, even Zimbabwe. The United Nations Refugee Agency said in early December that Dadaab's non-indigeneous population was now 300,000, a staggering number considering that the camps were originally built to house 90,000 people.

One of them is Mohamed Dahir, a camp elder. Visiting his home says a lot about what it means to be a refugee in Dadaab. His famiy has been here for years and there is no sign that anyone will leave anytime soon. The walls of his compound are covered with hundreds of U.S. AID vegetable oil tins flattened out and hammered together. The tops of oil drums have been cut off, sliced in half, painted blue or green or red and then laid around the buildings as decoration. We sit on straw mats under the shade of a tree where a cool breeze blows.

Dahir's identity card dates to 1986, and was issued by the Somali National Refugee Agency, back when Somalia received refugees instead of producing them. Dahir had been a farmer in Ethiopia, and fled government persecution in 1984. Five years later, he fled Somalia. "To be honest, being a refugee is not something I chose," he says. But it chose him: he has been one for almost half his life. "I wish I had a better life than I have today."

The refugee settlement at Dadaab was founded in 1991, growing to three locations — Hagadere, Ifo and Dagahale — that orbit the town of Dadaab like oversized moons around an asteroid. There are plans to build a fourth location, Ifo 2, but that has stalled because of disagreements with local leaders, who believe their people aren't getting enough benefit from the settlements, and are angry because new arrivals — about 1,000 people come from Somalia every week — live on the outskirts, on host community land, because they cannot find space within the existing refugee sites.

But a recent study commissioned by Kenya's Department of Refugee Affairs along with the Danish and Norwegian embassies shows that while the refugees do contribute to environmental degradation — mostly by cutting down trees and brush for firewood — the presence of the camps injects $14 million each year into the local economy. The local population here has risen tenfold in 20 years, far more than in the surrounding areas, and prices are low thanks to donor food resold on the open market. There are also jobs with the U.N. and other aid agencies, as well as business opportunities in the camps. And an estimated 27% of the local non-refugee population has ration cards and access to food distributed in the camps.

"Depending on the situation of the individual household, the positive and negative impacts will play out differently, but in total the study has established significantly more important positive impacts on the host area than negative," the report said.

Those economic positives have not eased tension between refugees and locals, but, for now Dadaab is a place that seems a puzzle no one particularly wants to solve. It is a hodge-podge of temporary solutions that have stayed temporary but in effect for 20 years. One of the most obvious examples of that involves the refugees who arrived here when they were just toddlers and have grown up, learned English and been educated in the camps. Kenya prevents them from getting jobs beyond what is known as incentive work, in which refugees get a token salary, sometimes $50 a month.

In the main, the leaders among the refugee youth are an extraordinary bunch. They have spent almost all their lives in Kenya and were educated here; and they have no intention of going back to Somalia. Some speak excellent English and they seethe with frustration in part because they claims that the Kenyan government is breaking its own refugee laws and international conventions that prohibit discrimination against refugees. "This is not fair. We have been given the knowledge," says Abdullahi Hussein Sheikh, 29, the youth camp chairman at Dagahale. "We are supposed to be paid as much as Kenyans"

Meanwhile, the government has said that the camps are a potential security and terrorism threat, particularly now that Somalia's al-Shabab rebels have allied themselves with al-Qaeda.

The U.N. says there are now 6,000 grandchildren of the original arrivals — the people who came that first year, in 1991. Many will grow old waiting here, and as the cemeteries dotted around the camps attest, some will die waiting here.

They are all waiting either for a Somalia safe enough to return to; or to be resettled in Europe or the United States. But Somalia hasn't seen a functioning government since 1991, the year the camps opened, and with its transitional government weakened by al-Shabab rebels and endless political turf battles, it seems unlikely that Somalia will return to peace for many more years. Only a few thousand people every year are resettled abroad, a tiny number considering that thousands more arrive in the camps every month.

Even though people are generally well fed, the sense of despair and sadness is overwhelming in the camps, its hallmark the sense of waiting for the chance to be anywhere but Dadaab. "There is a need to shift the refugee policy," Richard Floyer Acland, head of the U.N. Refugee sub-office in Dadaab, tells TIME. "People who have never even seen Somalia — can you keep treating them as foreign refugees?"