The World’s Largest Refugee Camp Is Invited to Please Shut Down

The Kenyan government says it will clear its country of Somali refugees before the end of this year. But it's not saying how.

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — Nafiso Mohamed Noor says she never wants to go back to Somalia. But if the Kenyan government follows through with its plan to close the world’s largest refugee camp by the end of the year, she may not have a choice.

Noor knows what it means to return prematurely to a war zone. In May 2015, after Kenya renewed what has become a perennial threat to shutter the sprawling, windswept settlement on its northeastern frontier that houses more than 326,000 refugees, most of them from neighboring Somalia, she decided to sign up for the U.N.’s voluntary repatriation program. Better to go back on her own terms than risk being rounded up and deported without warning, she thought.

So in August, after waiting three months for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to process her application, she boarded a flight to the Somali capital of Mogadishu. She found her old house in Wardigle, a neighborhood whose name in Somali roughly translates to “stream” — or “channel” — “of blood,” still standing. But less than two months later, a mortar fired by al-Shabab militants crashed into her kitchen. The round sheared off her right breast, sliced a 3-inch gash in her left foot, and left shards of metal embedded deep in her left hip.

“The shrapnel is still there,” she said recently, tracing a faint crescent shape near the ball of her femur on an X-ray taken here in Dadaab. “There, it looks like a moon.”

Noor returned to Dadaab as soon as she recovered from her injuries, but she once again faces the prospect of repatriation to Somalia before the war there is over. In May, the Kenyan government said it planned to close Dadaab for good, along with another refugee camp along its northwestern border that houses nearly 200,000 mainly South Sudanese refugees, citing security concerns. Since it invaded Somalia in 2011 to create a buffer zone against the growing al-Shabab threat, Kenya has seen a dramatic surge in domestic terrorist attacks. The government claims that some of the worst attacks, including those at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 and at Garissa University College last year, were planned in Dadaab, although it has never produced any evidence to support this.

Nafisa Mohamed Noor holds an x-ray against the sky, revealing shrapnel from a mortar shell that is still embedded in her hip. (Photo by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

But unlike previous threats to shutter the camp, the government followed this one up with action. It disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs in May and later announced a plan to move 150,000 people out of Dadaab by the end of the year through a combination of voluntary repatriation, relocating non-Somali refugees, and removing Kenyans who falsely registered as refugees from the UNHCR’s rolls. The government has not addressed the discrepancy in numbers — nearly 200,000 people would remain in Dadaab even if the government succeeds in relocating 150,000 — or explained how the camp would be closed if some or most of its inhabitants decide they wish to remain behind.

If Dadaab were actually to be emptied by the end of 2016, the exodus would rival the massive forced relocation of Rwandan refugees registered in Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, after that country was invaded by Rwanda in 1996. And according to experts, it would almost certainly violate international law, which prohibits the forceful repatriation of refugees. Even the voluntary repatriation process currently underway could fall into a legal gray area, some experts argue, since many refugees fear they will be forcefully uprooted or are struggling to survive on limited food rations in the camp.

“Our objective is to close the camp,” said Haro Kamau, the deputy commissioner of Garissa County who oversees Dadaab. “You cannot be a refugee forever. I think the situation in Somalia today allows for people to go home.”

Opened in 1992, one year after the collapse of Siad Barre’s dictatorship plunged Somalia into civil war, Dadaab has long since evolved into a massive informal city. Thousands of makeshift dwellings, jury-rigged with scraps of plastic and ringed by identical thornbrush hedges, fan out in orderly grids. Markets, schools, and small businesses like Sahruja Hair Salon and the Kempinski Hotel — a single-story affair with a listing metal roof — comprise the camp’s only permanent structures aside from the aid agencies, which hunker down behind blast-proof Hesco barriers. Kenya does not wish to assimilate hundreds of thousands of Somalis, so it keeps the refugees in a permanent state of limbo, unable to leave or work legally in the camp, and unable to safely return to Somalia. Three generations of Somalis have now grown up in Dadaab, and the majority of the younger inhabitants have never seen their home country.

Now they are beginning to trickle back. Flights carrying refugees to Mogadishu leave from Dadaab several times per week, as do buses bound for the southern Somali port city of Kismayo. More than 10,000 people have returned home so far this year, according to UNHCR, which administers the voluntary repatriation program and is currently working with the Kenyan government to weed out Kenyans who claimed refugee status in order to gain access to humanitarian aid. The U.N. initially pushed for Kenya to reconsider its plan to close the camp, citing humanitarian concerns, but it has since bowed to pressure by the Kenyan government and agreed to help halve the population of the camp by the end of the year.

A woman stands next to her home in Dadaab in July 2011, when thousands of new refugees arrived because of the famine in neighboring Somalia. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / GETTY IMAGES)

“This is for real,” Kamau said of the government’s plan to shutter Dadaab. He said the terrorist threat was the “overriding” reason for the closure but added that arms smuggling, human trafficking, and environmental degradation from the massive refugee population also factored into the decision.

But it remains unclear what will happen once the government runs out of volunteers for repatriation. Noor, for one, says she has no interest in returning to Somalia, despite having lost her refugee status when she agreed to go back the first time – and with it access to food and other assistance in Dadaab. Still, she feels nostalgic for the peaceful Mogadishu where she grew up. Born in 1975 in a white stone house a few blocks from Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, she is old enough to remember the days when Mogadishu was known as the “white pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

“I still have fond memories of those years,” she said. “But I could not stand to live in a place where the suicide bomber bumps into you in the street, where a truckload of explosives can ram into your house, where a stray mortar can hit you in the street.”

Noor initially fled Somalia in 2011, when the fighting between al-Shabab militants and African Union peacekeepers was at its fiercest and hundreds of people were starving to death each day because the Islamist militants wouldn’t allow emergency food aid into famine-affected areas. She arrived in Dadaab with nine children, her disabled husband, and the equivalent of about U.S. $20. It was all that remained of her middle-class life in Mogadishu.

Life in the camp was harsh. The winter winds stirred up vast curtains of dust and sand that poured through every chink in their flimsy tarpaulin dwelling. The food rations provided by the U.N. agencies were never enough. “But at least there was peace,” she said.

A woman walks along the edge of the Dagahaley refugee camp, which makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement, on July 23, 2011 in Dadaab, Kenya. (OLI SCARFF | GETTY IMAGES)

There was also education for her children, all but the youngest of whom enrolled in one of the camp’s 52 schools. Tens of thousands of refugees have been educated on the U.N.’s dime over the years, but the Kenyan government’s tight restrictions on employment mean that few opportunities await graduates.

“We are wondering about why a government should waste people’s talents and not allow them to work or to integrate after all these years,” said Aden Noor Ibrahim, who like Noor arrived with his family during the famine of 2011.

Mostly bald with a flaming red beard the color of henna, Ibrahim kept goats and other livestock before al-Shabab captured his region in southern Somalia and forced him to flee. He said that life in Dadaab was bearable at first, but that cuts to food rations provided by U.N. agencies meant that he and his children, aged 4 to 19, now often go hungry. (In June 2015, the World Food Programme (WFP), the U.N.’s food relief agency, cut food rations by 30 percent because of funding shortfalls.)

Unable to work in the camp, Ibrahim decided last year to risk returning to Somalia in order to provide for his family. He took a job as a porter in Kismayo, which, having been “liberated” from al-Shabab in 2012, is now ruled by the notorious militia leader and former al-Shabab member Ahmed Madobe. He braved near-daily threats from clan militias that operate there with impunity but was finally forced to return to Dadaab because of illness. The main hospital in Kismayo lacked even basic medical supplies, he said, and he was unable to afford private medical care for a painful chest infection. He says he won’t return to his home country until the war there is over and an effective government is in place.

“We have nowhere to go and nowhere to stay. The situation in Somalia is in fact worse than what we already fled from,” he said. “They say this repatriation is voluntary, but 150,000? How will that be voluntary?”

Aden Noor Ibrahim arrived in Dadaab during the 2011 famine in Somalia. (Photo by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

Lack of healthcare is a major concern for many refugees contemplating the possibility of return. After more than a quarter-century of grinding civil war, most health care in the country is provided by the U.N., by foreign medical charities or by private operators. Outside of a few major urban areas like Mogadishu and Kismayo, it can be virtually impossible to see a doctor. Only 44 percent of births are attended by a trained midwife, and one in 12 women dies from pregnancy-related complications, according to the United Nations. The mortality rate for children under the age of 5 is among the highest in the world.

“There is totally no medical care in Somalia,” said Abdewali Hire Hassan, who works for the Kenya Red Cross in Dadaab. “The medical facilities that exist are private and they want to milk people for money, so only the rich can get care. For refugees, there will be nothing. It will be like throwing people away in a ditch.”

For those refugees who see education — for themselves or for their children — as the only hope of escaping poverty, the situation in Somalia looks similarly bleak. Dadaab may be an open prison with few employment opportunities for even its brightest students, but at least it adheres to Kenya’s national curriculum, and a handful of lucky graduates receive scholarships each year to study in Kenyan universities or in the West. By contrast, Somalia has no public education system to speak of, and only 10 percent of primary school-aged children were in school as of 2010, according to a report by the Global Campaign for Education, which ranked the country’s education system the weakest in the world.

Word of Dadaab’s impending closure has sent shockwaves through the camp’s network of primary and secondary schools. At Hagadera Secondary School, a shabby warren of concrete classrooms topped with metal roofs, teachers say they’ve seen a dramatic drop in class attendance since the announcement in May.

“Less than 30 percent of students are coming to school now, down from 60 to 80 percent,” said Hussein Ismail, Hagadera’s principal. “They will say, ‘You know, I will be repatriated whether I want to be or not. Why am I doing homework?’”

One of those still showing up is Sadia Abdi Mohamed, a talkative 22-year-old with heavy eyelids and a broad smile who is hoping to win an Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) scholarship, funded by the German government and administered by UNHCR, to study at a university in Kenya.

Sadia Abdi Mohamed hopes to receive a DAFI scholarship to study at a university in Kenya. (Photos by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

“I have known since I was 5 that I want to be a doctor, a gynecologist, and to assist other women,” she said. “I am not happy about going back to Somalia. I want to stay here [in Kenya] and finish my education.”

In 2008, militiamen from a rival clan killed Mohamed’s father, burned down her family’s home in Mogadishu, and tortured her mother and sisters. “I left my motherland Somalia because of insecurity, torture, persecution and injustice to human rights,” she wrote in her application for the DAFI scholarship. “I am planning to fight the dropout of girls from schools and I shall encourage them that education is important and that it is the key of the world.”

If Dadaab is shuttered and its schools boarded up, Mohamed and thousands like her may never see the inside of a classroom again. Even carrying the educational certificates they earned here back to Somalia could put them in danger, since al-Shabab has been known to target those educated in Kenya in order to deter others from fleeing to the camps.

Some worry that sending thousands of young men back to a place where there are few educational or professional opportunities will only widen the pool of potential extremist recruits. “They may join those militia groups, so it may even worsen the small peace we have there,” said Ismail.

Although it is assisting with the voluntary deportations, the U.N. has stopped short of endorsing a full closure of the camp. Experts say that goal would be nearly impossible to achieve without forcefully repatriating refugees, a violation of international law.

“[C]amp closures are likely to lead to mass deportation back to refugees’ countries of origin, triggering a serious violation of international and Kenyan law prohibiting forced return to persecution or other serious harm,” Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, wrote in May.

Asked what will happen if the Kenyan government cannot meet its goal of reducing the camp’s population by 150,000 through strictly voluntary measures, Ahmed Baba Fall, UNHCR’s head of operations in Dadaab, said, “I think you better ask that question to the government, not to me. They are the ones who said they will close the camp by November and they are the ones who said that repatriation will be voluntary and humane… I am still asking myself what you are asking me: What do we do with those who are not going?”

Somali refugees wait to begin their journey by bus to Kismayo. (Photo by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

Hamara Sankus gets fingerprinted by UNHCR staff as part of the voluntary repatriation process. (Photo by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

Refugees who volunteered to be repatriated back to Somalia board buses in Dadaab. (Photo by TY MCCORMICK / FOREIGN POLICY)

Kamau, the deputy commissioner of Garissa County, said he did not anticipate that anyone would refuse repatriation. “It would be very unkind for any refugee to refuse to go home,” he said.

Since many refugees fear they will be forced out if they do not agree to leave, and since conditions in the camp have grown more desperate as WFP has cut ration levels for residents, some human rights advocates believe that even the early repatriation process now underway is not strictly voluntary.

“You can’t talk about voluntary repatriation until everybody feels safe and that staying is a choice,” said Ben Rawlence, the author of City of Thorns, a new book about Dadaab. “What’s happening at the moment is illegal and forced and wrong.”

On a recent morning at the parched airstrip in Dadaab, a group of several hundred refugees waited to board brightly painted buses bound for Kismayo. Each of them received an aid package to help them transition to their new lives outside the camp: a blanket, a mat to sleep on, and $200.

Dressed in a faded brown shawl and plastic flip-flops, Hamara Sankus pressed her left thumb into a blue inkpad. With three quick impressions on a form provided by the UNHCR, she had given up her status as a refugee, making her ineligible for future assistance should she ever return to Dadaab. Moments later, her two children had done the same.

Sankus said the decision to return to Somalia had been hers alone, but she wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived there. She and her children, 18-year-old Mohamed and 13-year-old Salado, would find out soon enough.

“What does the future hold?” she asked before climbing aboard a pink bus with yellow stripes. “Whatever God plans for me.”

Top image by OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

Ty McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. (@TyMcCormick)