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Dadaab, Kenya: World's largest refugee camp is 'unsustainable'

On the outskirts of Dadaab, where many refugees are sheltering as the main camps are overcrowded, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. Vast areas of land outside Dadaab have been reduced to scrub. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.[DADAAB] For months, the Kenyan government resisted opening an extension of the world’s largest refugee complex in Dadaab to accommodate Somalis displaced by drought and conflict, finally relenting in late August.

The town, about 80km from Somalia in Kenya’s arid Garissa region, has been drawing in refugees for more than two decades, throwing up complex problems that fuel Kenya’s frustration at having handled more than its share of the “Somalia problem”, says Badu Katelo, Kenya’s acting commissioner for refugees.

Somali refugees outnumber locals in Dadaab by a quarter of a million at least and counting, said J Ndamburi, the district commissioner. The three camps – Hagadera, Dagahaley and Ifo – designed for 90,000 people, now host approximately 440,000 refugees, 150,000 (all Somalis) of whom have arrived in the past three months, says the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for UNHCR, said it recognized the “tremendous sacrifices made by the Kenyans in hosting the Somali refugees” and was doing all it could to help them. Ifo 2, designed to accommodate 90,000, had been vacant since November 2010.

The government, aid agencies and local community say the situation as it stands is unsustainable and needs to be re-examined.

Katelo said the international community and richer countries such as South Africa should step forward to shoulder their responsibility towards the Somali refugees. “Just because Somalia is our neighbour, it is not our problem alone – the UN [Security Council] should adopt a resolution making it mandatory for everyone to play their role in addressing the situation and resolving conflict in Somalia.”

A Kenyan government proposal to set up camps along the Somali border was rejected by the UN and NGOs recently as "untenable" as the security situation in Somalia continued to be "highly volatile", it contradicts the notion of providing international protection, and impinges upon the right to seek asylum.

Drought-driven influx

The host population within a 50km radius of the refugee complex has been growing at a rate of 11.7 percent per year since the refugees moved into Dadaab, according to a study commissioned by the Kenyan government with Denmark and Norway in 2010, which looked at the impact of the refugee complex on the people of Dadaab. 

The host population in 1989 was only 15,000 and has ballooned to at least 148,000 people, said the study.

“Recurrent droughts have had profound effects on the population and the increase in settlement in the Dadaab host community,” it stated.

Ndamburi and officials of the Dadaab District Peace Committee estimated the current local population to be at least 250,000, noting that residents of the drought-affected neighbouring regions of Mandera and Wajir continued to arrive.

“We all [new arrivals from Somalia and neighbouring regions in Mandera and Wajir] belong to the same [Somali] ethnic clan, Ogaden. It is easier for us to get along, but there is a lot of strain, pressure on the resources like water and wood. There is potential for conflict,” explained Omar Garane, vice-chairman of the committee. Three Ogaden sub-clans, the Aulihan, Abdwak and the Magarbul, account for the majority of the host population in Dadaab.

Garane and Gabow Hassan, the treasurer, who work for the committee voluntarily, said they had been involved in the recent negotiations between the UN, Kenyan government and the people of Dadaab on the opening of Ifo 2. “It involves the community’s land – so it is a sensitive issue. The people of Dadaab understand the condition of our brothers in Somalia, they do not have problems accommodating them, but there are more of them than us and we are also suffering from the drought,” said Garane.

He said as the local community sees convoys of aid agency vehicles roll into the camps every day, it leaves them feeling bitter. “Because of their desperation - not having food and water – many people have even registered themselves as Somali refugees,” said Garane. He estimated there were at least 30,000 people in Dadaab who had fraudulently registered as Somali refugees, allowing them to access free food.

The impact study put the number at about 40,500: “Among host community members it is not considered very difficult to obtain a refugee card and is moreover seen as a logical survival strategy for those living in the host area.”

More boreholes

Water is seen as a major drawcard. The town and its surrounding districts, including Liboi near the Somali border, have far more boreholes than the neighbouring areas.

Thewodros Mulugeta, a water and sanitation specialist with the UN Children’s Agency, UNICEF, which is heading an initiative to provide water to the host community, told IRIN the popular perception that refugees had better water resources than the host population was unfounded.

“We understand and appreciate the difficulties being experienced by the host community who are also affected by the drought.” Mulugeta said UNICEF was rehabilitating boreholes outside the camps and trucking water wherever it could.

Many host communities pay for water to fund the fuelling and maintenance of pumps - another sore point as refugees do not pay for water. But aid agencies said they were helping out with subsidizing fuel in some instances. Michael Adams, a senior official with Care Kenya, said it was looking at the sustainability of making cash transfers via mobile phones to pay for the water.

Some aid workers and the impact study expressed a concern that the boreholes that tap into the local Merti aquifer might not be sustainable in the long term. They warned that the rate of depletion of the aquifer, which also supplies water to other parts of Garissa, Wajir and Isiolo regions, was likely to exceed the replenishment rate by the end of 2010.

However, Mulugeta said he had studied the recharge rate and found it to be good.

Strain on environment

The camps have put a considerable strain on other natural resources, notably wood, said Garane. Vast areas of land outside Dadaab have been reduced to scrub. The selective harvesting of trees “is permanently altering biodiversity and affecting pastoralists over some 10,000 square kilometres by changing the ecological balance of plant, animal, bird and insect species”, noted the impact study.

A programme that aims to supply firewood in a sustainable manner, which started in 1998, has been undermined by unauthorized exploitation of its plantations by traders from the camps, found the impact study.

There is also competition over grazing land. “At the moment we manage it all, but we are constantly resolving conflicts over this issue and now with the drought the situation can get worse,” said Garane.

Dadaab shopkeeper Deckon Sirad Salah said refugees are welcomed despite the strain they put on the host community. Photo: Jennifer Brookland/IRIN.Costs and benefits

On the upside, the past two decades have seen Dadaab transformed from a minor outpost into a boom town, with significant improvements in education and health facilities.

The refugee camps have developed as major markets with considerable purchasing power. The host community earns about US$1.8 million from the sale of livestock for slaughter in the camps alone every year, says the impact study.

The camps have at least 5,000 shops run both by refugees and the host community, against about 370 in the town. The study estimates the annual turnover of camp businesses at about $25 million while that of shops in town is said to be $1.3 million.

“On a per-capita basis, the combined economic benefits to the host community represented 25 percent of average annual per capita income in North Eastern province,” found the study.

Most of the money flowing into Dadaab comes from donors and agencies. The cost of upkeep has grown from $44 million in 2007 to about $100 million in 2010. At mid-2011, agencies said they would need some $340 million for refugees in Kenya (including Kakuma and Nairobi) but mostly Dadaab.

About $1.9 million from the overall support budget for the camps is spent on infrastructure investments that benefits the host community.

“If you look at the [living] conditions [of] people in Dadaab and the neighbouring regions – you can see they are [both] better off than people in Mandera or Wajir,” said an aid worker, who did not want to be named.

Direct support for the local population from the aid agencies, including the UN, has grown from $2 million in 2007 to $5.5 million in 2010.

The study, using 2010 as a reference year, found that the camps provided about $14 million in total economic benefits to the host community.

The peace committee, however, said local residents were ignored during aid agency recruitments and that the unemployment rate was high.

Not much attention has been paid to the question of what happens once humanitarian operations are phased out. Most of the local population depends on pastoralism. The study suggested government and aid agencies should invest in more dispersed development investments, such as providing veterinary services and training in trading and business opportunities outside Dadaab.

Source: the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN IRIN - humanitarian news and analysis from Africa, Asia and the Middle East

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Police Family Support UnitCourtroom posterJoseph Rahall
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