Dadaab Refugee Camps need a booster shot

Last weekend, I got the chance to visit the Dadaab refugee camps where I lived as a refugee and worked for non-governmental organizations for many years. My 17-year stay in the camps before securing a scholarship to study in Canada in 2009 has not been easy. At that time, and even today, the refugees living in the camps faced several challenges from food shortages to lack of opportunities for work or further education.

The camps, Hagadera, Ifo, and Dagahley, were first established in 1991 to host under 100,000 refugees fleeing from the civil war in Somalia for a short time. Nobody expected the camps to last this long and to grow to as many as half a million refugees at one point. The camps have been described as ‘open prisons’ with refugees unable to freely move in and out of the camps. However, the refugees benefited from the relative safety in the camps and the basic services provided such as water, education, and healthcare. Many refugees have also been resettled in other countries.

Despite these benefits, the refugees in the camps are currently in a dire situation facing numerous challenges including psychological problems. In addition, climate change impacts are visible and, unless action is taken, the current set up and infrastructure will no longer be able to support life in the camps. As the camps have been there for over 30 years, the water infrastructure has aged and requires significant upgrades. Infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change is also badly needed. Schools and health centers also need to be upgraded. Furthermore, reliable road infrastructure is needed to connect refugees to urban centers and to facilitate the immediate delivery of food during emergencies.

Recently, probably because of donor fatigue, insecurity and newer global emergencies and crisis, refugee operations in Dadaab camps have been scaled down with many organizations downgrading their work in the camps. UNHCR has started to repatriate refugees hoping that many will go back to their countries of origin. However, today many are coming back, and newer groups are coming every day to Dadaab to seek asylum. This is because of not only the instability in Somalia and other neighboring countries but also the long drought that is havocking the region.

I have no doubt Dadaab refugee camps will be there for the next 30 years or more and for that reason, authorities and other stakeholders would need to change their current approach and boost the camp’s infrastructure and services.

Posing for a photo in front of my former office in Dadaab during my time with NRC in 2008