Despite protections built into international refugee and human rights law against restricting the freedom of movement of refugees, and studies that show that self-settled refugees are better off and contribute to the economies of their host countries, the camps at Dadaab contain half a million refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in East Africa.
The United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees, in tandem with a host of other international and domestic NGOs, is responsible for the oversight and maintenance of more than 450,000 refugees in Dadaab, spread across three camps which have a combined capacity to host a total of 90,000 refugees: Dagahaley, Ifo, and Hagadera. The refugees, primarily Somali, have been arriving for more than 20 years.
Dadaab is 75 kilometers from the Somalia border crossing at Liboi, in Kenya's semi-arid North Eastern province. The region has traditionally been the home of nomadic populations of goat and camel herders who, prior to the implementation of borders, wandered freely between what eventually became Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. This tradition has given rise to a substantive population of Kenyan Somalis who have faced significant discrimination within Kenya. The North Eastern province has seen the worst of this xenophobia. In the 1980s, under President Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenyan government used 'emergency laws' to override constitutional protections and justify the detention and torture of a huge number of Kenyan Somalis in the province. The Wagalla Massacre of 1984 saw Kenyan military officers round up 'ethnic Somalis' by the hundreds or thousands (estimates vary) on the Wagalla airstrip and hold them for five days before executing them - perhaps Kenya's worst human rights atrocity in history. In 1989, the government used a policy based in identity documentation to round-up and expel hundreds of Kenyan Somalis, stripping them of their citizenship and forcing them across the Somali and Ethiopian borders. Many who evaded the round-ups fell victim to a police 'shoot to kill' policy, ostensibly instituted to combat wildlife poaching, that ultimately lead to many deaths. The 2011 Kenyan invasion of Somalia - in response to a spate of kidnappings and bombings - has only served to increase suspicion of Kenyan Somalis in the country, leading many to fear a renewed backlash.
International humanitarian workers stationed in Dadaab are advised not to travel the Garissa road - the only thoroughfare back to Nairobi - due to the threat of attacks and kidnappings by bandits or members of al Shabaab, the fundamentalist, al Qaida-linked Somali resistance organization suspected of being behind bombings and kidnappings in Kenya. The road is the primary supply route to the camps, and humanitarian workers who do travel it are told to 'drive fast'.
Without viable goods distribution services, refugees held in Dadaab rely on wheelbarrows to transport food, water, and other basic needs deep into the camps. The wheelbarrows provide one of the only 'stable' sources of income for those that are able to secure them, who then rent their services to other refugees.
The tiny percentage of Dadaab refugees who receive the opportunity to resettle in another country depart from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Some receive a brief cultural orientation training before departure, learning basic skills that are completely foreign to the refugee camp experience - such as how to unfasten an airline seat belt and how to turn on a stove. In the interest of scale, consider that of the more than 450,000 refugees in Dadaab, only a very few thousand at best are resettled by the United States every year - the world's largest and most generous resettlement country in its most ambitious resettlement operation in Africa. At that rate, and without a change in circumstances, the vast majority of refugees held in the Dadaab camps will die there.
The Dadaab refugee camps drive nearly all local business, creating a vast market for the small population of Kenyans who live in Dadaab town. In the UNHCR compound however, refugees themselves are marketable. This barbershop and crafts store is advertised as providing refugee handicrafts and is one of two of its kind in the compound - the other attached to the UNHCR staff cafeteria. Kenyans from Dadaab are rarely substantively employed in the compound, as contracts tend to go to Nairobi-based bidders, who then transit their own staff out to the compound.
Leaks in the Dadaab compound's two massive steel water tanks provide a steady water supply for an outcropping of trees that has flourished below. The Superb Starling is one of a number of birds that have taken advantage of the water and greenery, waiting until the evening lights come on to feast on the moths they attract. Superb Starlings range from South Sudan to Tanzania and are monogamous, but collectively raise their young - helping each other build nests and collect food for their babies.
The three primary Dadaab refugee camps - Hagadera, Ifo, and Dagahaley - have been conceived and built over the past 20 years. Their combined capacity is 90,000 people. More than 450,000 refugees now live in the Dadaab camps. The Kenyan government has been hesitant to receive the potential political backlash of facilitating the expansion of the refugee presence in Kenya or building new camps, however. Recently it has succumbed to external and internal pressure to provide more land for the refugees - who continue to arrive at a rate of hundreds every day - by allowing the existing camps to be 'expanded'. This solution has involved building new camps, but naming them as extensions of the existing camps, thereby retaining the political rhetoric that there are 'only three' camps in Dadaab.
The landrover is the standard vehicle of the humanitarian relief effort in Dadaab. Landrovers travel in convoy and are escorted by armed police when travelling through the camps. The convoys have been subject to recent attacks by improvised explosives and landmines in Hagadera and Ifo camps. Earlier this year a CARE landrover was taken and its driver kidnapped. The landrover has since been recognized as being driven by a high-ranking member of al Shabaab in the port town of Kismayo, Somalia. In October a landrover belonging to Medecins sans Frontieres was taken after its driver was shot during the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers. The vehicle was abandoned along the road to Somalia after being pursued by Kenyan military helicopters.
Communication between humanitarian staff is primarily facilitated by hand-held radios, which are strictly controlled and used under particular rules of contact and language. When two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped by suspected al Shabaab militants in Dadaab in October 2011, the hand-held radios became the primary tool for updates and warnings. Refugees in the camp have no regular communication, and often rely on the mobile telephones of neighbors or friends.
The Hibiscus Mall is a small shop bordering the UNHCR cafeteria in the Dadaab compound. The 'mall' stocks crackers, sodas, milk, and cookies and is operated by a refugee. Despite the fact that refugees recognized under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are afforded the right to work under the same conditions as citizens - further affirmed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - UNHCR offers an 'incentive' policy for refugees it allows to work in various refugee camps around the world. The policy justifies paying refugees a small fraction of local salary rates and national minimum wage because refugees ostensibly have fewer expenses then regular citizens. This practice has been challenged for violating international labor and human rights law, and its underlying assumptions have been challenged by refugee academics.
Freedom of movement is restricted for refugees in Kenya and in the Dadaab camps, who are not permitted to travel outside of the Dadaab complex. Movement is similarly restricted for international NGOs, who are required to remain within the UNHCR administered Dadaab staff compound and are subject to strict curfews and travel regulations, including armed convoys when traveling through the camps. The hundreds of birds that live on the site are permitted to move freely.
Weighing an average of 9 kgs and having a wingspan of nearly three meters, Marabou Storks require a good amount of power to lift themselves from the ground and climb to an altitude at which they can easily glide over the camps, scavenging for carcasses and trash dumps. The amount of air displaced when a Marabou Stork lifts off is so significant that the action is easily audible from great distances.
Goat is the most readily available local meat, as beef, chicken, fish, and any number of other commodities must be flown or trucked in to Dadaab from Garissa or beyond. After years of food distribution through the World Food Program (WFP), local food markets have found no substantive footing and staff from the Dadaab UNHCR compound must drive to Garissa, an hour or more each way, to get staples that are not flown in by charter flight every other day.
Despite an effort to change its name by the restaurant's new management, Pumzika is the UNHCR compound's most well known social hub, offering a standard plate meal (usually goat and beans) and cheap beer and wine to humanitarian staff during their stay in Dadaab. Pumzika staff work a solid three-months before being granted four days off, much of which is spent transiting the 8 hour drive to Nairobi to visit family. The restaurant staff share a single tent, sleeping in shifts or on the floor between beds when all staff are present.
With a measured wingspan of 12 feet, the Maribou Stork has been ranked as having the largest wingspan of any living bird in the world - although the claim is not unanimously agreed. Maribou Storks primarily feed on carrion and have acclimatized well to the trash piles and waste dumps around the Dadaab compound.
CARE International is one of UNHCR's primary operational partners in Dadaab, assisting with camp management and a number of other activities. In September of 2011 a CARE staff member was kidnapped and a CARE vehicle was carjacked while in the Dadaab camps. The staff member remains missing, but the car has been located in the port city of Kismayo, Somalia, where it is reportedly being driven by a high ranking member of al Shabaab.
A Kenyan military helicopter flies over the Dadaab camps in pursuit of al Shabaab rebels accused of kidnapping two Spanish Medecins Sans Frontieres workers and the shooting of their driver less than an hour earlier. The vehicle they were traveling in was found abandoned on the road to Somalia, and despite gunfire and a considerable pursuit effort by the Kenyan military, the women were not retrieved and are currently believed to be being held in Somalia for ransom. Medecins Sans Frontiers employs a steadfast dedication to total accessibility and refuses to 'militarize' its operations or travel in armed convoy.
The airstrip at Dadaab is an understated and unlit strip of black tarmac loosely bordered by chain link fencing. In the circumstance of nighttime emergencies, such as spitting cobra attacks, the runway is lined by UNHCR compound landrovers that use their headlights to light the strip so that evacuation planes can land.
Before any refugees that are granted the opportunity to resettle abroad are cleared to travel, they are required to undergo medical check ups at the IOM-run medical clinic. Only the most 'vulnerable' refugees in the camp are offered resettlement interviews, and many are in need of medical treatment that is beyond the capabilities of the refugee camp hospitals.
After the kidnapping of two Spanish Medecins Sans Frontieres staff, all non-lifesaving travel outside of the UNHCR Dadaab complex was stopped indefinitely. Only those staff and vehicles required to maintain hospital functions continued to travel outside of the compound, and only under strict curfew.
Continued fighting in Somalia and a severe drought throughout the Horn of Africa have lead to a continued refugee influx, despite Kenya closing its borders in 2006. As a result, tents have been set up throughout the Dadaab compound to house journalists, humanitarian workers, visitors, and maintenance staff.
Sunsets in Dadaab are long and lingering, and in the absence of regular work routines or effective signifiers of the passage of time, many refugees in the camp have no idea how long they have been there. Most Somalis estimate (or have been told by the UNHCR) that they - or some generation before them - arrived in 1991, when Hawiye rebels loyal to General Aideed overthrew the Darod government of Siad Barre. The war so dramatically divided Somalis along ethnic lines that simply being assumed as affiliated with one or the other tribe could mean death.
The conditions in Dadaab - like in many refugee camps - are harsh and unforgiving as governments allocate their least desirable land to housing refugees. There is little, if any, soil capable of supporting regular agriculture, and deforestation is happening at an alarming rate as refugees and residents of Dadaab town use local firewood as fuel.
The vast majority of Dadaab's refugee inhabitants are Somali, who have often fled on foot through the wilderness to the Kenyan outpost border town of Liboi - known to the Somalis as 'Bartadere', meaning 'the long pole', due to a communications tower that marks the spot. In October 2011 refugees were arriving at Dadaab - a 90,000 capacity complex of camps currently hosting over 450,000 people - at a rate of about 400 a day.