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The world’s biggest refugee camp has no more room

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Residents of the Dadaab camps collect clothes to donate to newly arrived refugees, most of whom have left all their possessions behind in Somalia, February 2011. Photo: The Guardian/Hamza Mohamed

Stranded in the desert of Kenya’s northeastern province, surrounded by mile upon mile of sand and scrubby bushes, 30,000 people are living in makeshift shelters under a burning sun. The families – having crossed the border from neighbouring Somalia, 80 km away – are headed for the refugee camps of Dadaab. But the three camps in the Dadaab area are already full, and there is nowhere for them to stay.

This is the story of the world’s biggest refugee camp, told by Medecines Sans Frontieres. On arrival, the refugees – most of whom are women and children – have no money, no food, no water and no shelter. It takes 12 days, on average, to receive a first ration of food1, and 34 days to receive cooking utensils and blankets from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, which runs the camps. Until then they have to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.

A woman displays her UN food assistance card in Dadaab, August 2009. Photo: The Guardian/Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In temperatures of 50 degrees, and fearful of attack by hyenas, the families are building fragile shelters in the desert on the camps’ fringes. They use whatever materials they can find: mostly branches and brushwood, tied together to form domed structures, which they cover with cardboard, polythene or torn fabric – anything to provide some shelter from the unrelenting sun and the choking dust.

The camps of Dadaab are surrounded by barren desert. The three camps – Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo – known collectively as the ‘biggest refugee camp in the world’ – were established 20 years ago to house up to 90,000 people escaping violence and civil war in Somalia. With no end to the conflict in sight, there are now more than 350,000 people2 crowded into the camps’ perimeters, while the number of new arrivals is surging. This year, 44,000 new refugees have already been registered, and by the end of 2011 the camps are likely to be home to 450,000 people3, twice the population of Geneva.

As more and more people crowd the camps and the surrounding desert, the availability of essential services – such as water, sanitation and education – is shrinking, and living conditions are getting rapidly worse. An extension to one of the camps, known as Ifo Extension, which has space for 40,000 refugees and could provide a temporary solution to providing shelter for new arrivals, lies half-built and empty due to a breakdown in negotiations between the Kenyan authorities and the UNHCR.

Somali children attend an outdoor class in Dagahaley camp, June 2009. Photo: The Guardian/Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

In a report on the camps The Guardian said that 20 years after the first Somali refugees fled the crisis that ousted President Siad Barre, thousands of people continue to pour across the border from Somalia into north-eastern Kenya into the largest refugee complex in the world. Today, the three refugee camps – Dagahale, Ifo and Hagadera – that make up the overcrowded and chronically underfunded Dadaab complex are home to more than 300,000 people and three generations of refugees.

Mohamad Ali was one of the first to arrive from Somalia when civil war broke out in 1991. He didn’t expect to stay long, but in 20 years he hasn’t set foot outside the complex. Refugees aren’t allowed to leave the camps unless they receive special movement passes. If caught without a pass, they risk arrest, detention or expulsion. Special buses can be taken between each of the complex’s three camps, which are separated from one another by a few kilometres of dust and dry heat.

This is the second time Ali has been made a refugee. Ethnically Somali, he was driven out of his home in Ethiopia to Somalia by the war between the two countries in 1977. He is now 79 years old, and calls Dadaab his home. It’s Kenya’s fourth-largest city, although no Kenyan lives there, he says. The camps were originally designed to house 90,000 people, but with the ongoing crisis in Somalia, official estimates suggest that around 5,000 new refugees arrive each month. Richard Floyer-Acland, the UNHCR representative in Dadaab, put the number closer to 9,000.

Ifo camp in May 1992. Photo: The Guardian/P Moumtzis/UNHCR

Written by makanaka

June 11, 2011 at 19:53

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