Somali refugees face grim prospects in Kenyan camp

A documentary producer takes us inside Dadaab, a decades-old, sprawling network of refugee camps in northeast Kenya that houses many of the people who fled drought and famine in southern Somalia.

Author, producer Debi Goodwin talks to CBC about life inside sprawling refugee compound near Kenya-Somalia border

A Somali girl at a school inside the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab in northeastern Kenya in 2009. In the 1990s, elders in the Dadaab refugee compound, which includes Hagadera, pushed aid organizations to set up schools in the camp. Today, refugee children can earn Kenyan high school diploma within the camp school system but have few prospects beyond graduation. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Tens of thousands of people have likely died as a result of the ongoing famine in Somalia, and more than 11 million in the wider Horn of Africa region are in need of food assistance as a result of what the United Nations is calling the worst hunger emergency in a generation.

Many of those seeking assistance have ended up in Dadaab, a sprawling network of refugee camps in northeast Kenya near the border with Somalia. The compound is made up three separate camps — Hagadera, Dagahely and Ifo — and was set up in 1991 to house Somalis fleeing the civil war that erupted after the overthrow of President Siad Barre.

Today, more than 380,000 people live in the camps, originally built to hold 90,000. About 1,300 new refugees arrive each day. Most of them are fleeing either the drought, which has afflicted the whole of the Horn of Africa but hit southern Somalia the hardest, or the ongoing conflict between the Islamist rebels who control much of the south and Somalia's Western-backed transitional government.

Author and documentary producer Debi Goodwin spent time in the Dadaab refugee compound in 2007 and 2008. (Jane Goodwin)

As malnutrition rates climb and resources become scarce, humanitarian organizations struggle to accommodate new arrivals.

Debi Goodwin is an author, former CBC journalist and an award-wining documentary producer who has documented life in Dabaab. She travelled to the camp compound in 2007 as a producer for The National and again in 2008 while working on her book Citizens of Nowhere.

CBC spoke with Goodwin days after the UN officially declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia: Bakool and Lower Shabelle.

CBC News: What is life like for people living in Dadaab?

Debi Goodwin: For older people, they basically know that their life is finished, that their functional life is over. They have nothing to pass on to their children. They have no land, no property. All that was left behind when they fled Somalia.

So, their only hopes are to try and get out, or to try and get their kids out, to get their kids an education that will get them through universities … and at least have some sort of life.

In the camps — previous to this present crisis — what they've tried to do is sort of create a normal life for their family.

How are schools set up in the camps?

It was the elders in the camps who pushed for education. They actually have quite an extensive school system within the camps. The elders approached [the relief organization] CARE, who agreed to try it initially in the early 90s, and it just expanded.

So, now, there is the possibility of getting a high school degree with a Kenyan certificate, which is a good enough certificate to get into universities across the world.

The problem is there aren't enough high schools to take the kids that graduate public school. There aren't enough high schools to take all the kids generally in the camps. So, they've pushed for more schools in the last few years. CARE has … [set up] a few more, and the elders have actually put together their own money … and created some of their own schools.

What happens after high school for young people in Dadaab?

There are kids who have known nothing but Dadaab and never leave, and for young people, there is just an incredible frustration when they do finish high school.

There's only about under 20 scholarships a year that get them out of the camp, and about 200 graduate a year. So, that's been piling up for all these years. So, you have the young people just hanging around.

In Hagadera, they have a corner. The guys told me it's called "Stress Corner." And it's where the young men talk about how to get out…

They graduate high school, and they have nothing to do. The Kenyan government doesn't allow them to work, doesn't allow them to move out of the camps and doesn't allow them to integrate into Kenyan society. So, they really have no options.

What kind of work is there for those who don't get scholarships?

There is no employment, but the aid agencies have what they call incentive jobs. They're able to give an honorarium, basically. For example, you can teach all day long for a $100 a month.

So, young people who graduate high school often become primary teachers. That's part of the problem with the school system, because they're not really trained.

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One of the young fellows in my book was one of the highest paid incentive workers, because he worked in the gender sector — the violence against women sector. So, if you can, imagine this young 19-year-old boy going around and settling domestic disputes and speaking out against female circumcision.

The bulk of people do nothing. I mean, they stand around; they visit with each other; they try to make do with the food they have. They try to make sure someone in their family has one of these incentive jobs. It's not a lot of money, but they can buy things like sugar and meat and produce, which they don't get in their rations. It's just all dried grains and cereal; that's all they get every 15 days.

Have the conditions in the camps worsened over time?

It's a horrible situation and has been going on for years. In some ways, the people I've talked to, the young people, are relieved that this drought and famine are bringing some attention to Dadaab…

This famine, it's just one chapter. They went through famine when they first went there in '91 or '92. One of the kids was telling me five people in one family would be dead in a day.

I was there when they have had rift valley fever. They've had cholera many times. They've had flooding, devastating flooding, which destroyed the houses that they built themselves. 

And they've often had malnutrition. There's never been enough food, even in the best of times.

How do people in Dadaab cope?

Hope is the only positive thing you have in a refugee camp. So, they do try to continuously keep up the hope, to educate their children, and they are continuously applying for resettlement.

They are devout Muslims since 97 per cent of the camp is Somali. And I would say they're more religious in the camps than probably they were back in Somalia. It's sort of the structure they have in their day. Having five prayers gives you a structure when you don't have a nine-to-five job…

So, faith and hope that their children will get out, those are the two things that keep them going.

What's the solution to the camps in Dadaab?

I've been to Somalia, too, and I'm just horrified by how long the world has taken to respond to that situation. I think those two cannot be cut apart. There's never going to be a solution in Dadaab until there's a solution in Somalia.

Somali refugees eat pancakes made from rations at Dagahaley camp in Dadaab on July 12, 2011. 'There's never been enough food, even in the best of times,' says Goodwin of the conditions in the Dadaab camps. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

The people in Somalia are in what's called a protracted refugee situation, and there are dozens of those all over the world. It's unfortunate, the way our refugee crisis is going. When it was established after the Second World War, the UNHCR was there to try to deal with refugee situations quickly and settle them. It's not happening anymore.

There are three solutions to refugee situations: One is repatriation; a second is integration; and a third one is resettlement.

You can't resettle all the people in the camps. There's too many people; you just can't. Secondly, the Kenyan government is incapable of letting them all integrate.

The only real option is repatriation, and that's not going to happen until there's peace in Somalia.

There has to be a major world conference. There has to be something that finally tries to cope with the knot that Somalia is in —a knot we've allowed to grow tighter and tighter, for 20 years.

They're mirror situations, the situation in Dadaab is just a reflection of the situation in Somalia. You can't deal with one without the other.