A view from the largest refugee camp in the world

A view from the largest refugee camp in the world


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Kenya is one of the top ten countries hosting the largest communities of asylum seekers and refugees: nearly 600,000 people, according to the UN. That’s around the same as the population of Glasgow in the UK, or Dusseldforf in Germany, or Milwaukee in the US. 

Most Kenyan refugees live in two huge camps: Daadab and Kakuma, both larger than many cities and towns. 

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Most Somali refugees flee to Dadaab, in the north east of Kenya. It had a population of 345, 000 refugees and asylum seekers (95% from Somalia) as of 1st March 2016. The first camp here was built in 1991, with big additions since. Each year, thousands are born here, and many people have spent their entire lives in Daadab. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 80% of the residents are women and children.

Even though it has been a camp for years, it is still a temporary place. The Kenyan government forbids permanent structures in Dadaab, so refugees live in UN tents. Water comes from tap stands. Toilets are still holes in the ground. 

Ben Rawlence, a writer from the UK, has just published a book about life in Dadaab. City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp follows nine residents of Dadaab. “From the air, I suppose, it looks like Atlanta,” he said in an interview with NPR. “It’s all these grids, and it’s got five different towns, all of which orbit the original settlement of Dadaab.”

“The camp is arranged in blocks, and each block is divided into 10 or 20 houses. And those houses are basically a hut in a sandy compound. The sand is red, and the fence around the compound is made of thorns, because that’s the only real building material in the desert. And all around the camp, for around 100 kilometers, all the thorn trees have been cut down because people have used them for construction. And then, in the middle of each camp is a sort of informal market.”

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It is very difficult for refugees to get work in Kenya, so the UN must continue to ship over 5,000 tons of food each month, mainly rice and beans. Getting enough to eat is a major effort. 

Because of security concerns and restrictions on movement, getting in and out of Dadaab is tough. To leave the camp, residents need a special pass that can only be issued after a vetting process and interviews. This is incredibly difficult and takes time, so most residents learn to live within the complex. Some have lived there for years without ever leaving—some have not left even though they were born there. 

It isn’t the only refugee camp in the country. Most people fleeing from conflict in South Sudan arrive in Kakuma Camp, in the north west. It has a registered population of 187,867 refugees, mostly from South Sudan (51%) and Somalia (30%), followed by Sudan (5%), Democratic Republic of Congo (5%) and Ethiopia (4%). 

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Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 27% of the world’s refugees, many of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The reality on the ground in Dadaab, and in camps in Africa and beyond, is that people end up living most of their lives in what become semi-permanent towns and cities. The people living in these camps are among the most vulnerable on the planet. They have meagre or no livelihoods, cannot exercise their full rights and are often malnourished and missing basic essential services. Women and children are at risk of attack and sexual violence. 

It’s a desperate situation – and the world needs to fully fund and better serve the people that are caught in these camps, like all those fleeing insecurity and suffering. 

Tell Congress: We can do more to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, including refugees, from poverty and extremism.

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