Dadaab: the world's largest refugee camp

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  • The worlds largest refugee camp

    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.

  • From Above

    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.

  • Charter

    The UNHCR Dadaab compound is resupplied with staff and goods through regular charter flights from Nairobi.

  • The road to Garissa

    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'.

  • Settlement

    Initially established with tents, some areas of the Dadaab camps have grown into long-term refugee settlements.

  • (Upward?) mobility

    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.

  • Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

    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.

  • Enterprise

    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.

  • Superb Starling

    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.

  • Only 'three' camps in Dadaab

    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.

  • Landrover

    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.

  • Recreation

    The UNHCR compound's soccer field and basketball court simultaneously serve as a place for recreation, a helicopter landing pad, and open range for goats and Maribou Storks.

  • Bathing

    Birds find an opportunity to bathe in the leaking water of one of the Dadaab compound's massive water tanks.

  • Housing

    The housing complex for IOM-hosted staff at the Dadaab compound connects a number of small concrete housing blocks and auxilliary tents through sandy roads and paths, often named after high ranking personalities in the United Nations.

  • Communications

    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.

  • Hibiscus Mall

    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.

  • Posing

    Marabou Storks use their large hanging air sac to assert dominance (by inflating it), regulate their temperature (by running blood through it), and amplify their gutteral clacking noises (by using it as a resonance chamber).

  • Thirst

    The UNHCR compound is hydrated by two steel water tanks towering between the housing area and the primary UNHCR field office. The tanks host a number of birds, who use the water to drink and bathe and perch atop for a good vantage over the surrounding desert.

  • A word from the sponsors

    Each separate entrance to the various sectors of the Dadaab humanitarian complex is marked by a list of funders who have contributed to the operations of the organization housed within.

  • A bed for the night

    Maribou Storks settle in for the night just outside the UNHCR Dadaab compound.

  • More walls and fences

    Dadaab town is separated from the Dadaab UNHCR complex by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. The refugee camps extend outwards from the town, and cover an area of at least 50 square kilometers.

  • Flight

    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.

  • Rainwater

    Kenyan Somali children play in an accidental swimming pool of floodwaters on the 'other' side of the UNHCR Dadaab compound fence. For these children, life inside the fence is a mystery.

  • Free time

    Without being allowed to travel outside the Dadaab compound, NGO staff rely heavily on physical activity and rotating late-night parties hosted by the various organizations in order to fill their free time.

  • Light as a feather

    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.

  • Evacuation route

  • Dead meat

    Marabou Storks take advantage of the relative wealth in the UNHCR compound, and consequent abundance of meat scraps, by lurking behind bushes and outcroppings, waiting for the opportunity to grab bones tossed out by catering staff.

  • Food

    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.

  • Dinner

  • Rains

    After a drought that caught the attention of the world, reportedly putting 10 million people at high risk and causing a cholera outbreak in Dadaab, the Dadaab refugee camps were inundated with rain in October 2011.

  • Watchers

  • Pumzika

    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.

  • Wings

    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.

  • Restricted Access

    Staff working and living in the Dadaab compound are required to wear identification badges in order to enter and exit various quarters.

  • Carabid Beetle

    Carabid beetles come in many different families and are very common throughout East Africa. They are predatory carnivores, hunting and eating other beetles and insects. They are fast runners and very large - this one is nearly two inches long.

  • CARE International

    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.

  • Kenyan Military

    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.

  • Maribou Stork

  • Supply route

    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.

  • Medical

    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.

  • Construction

    Despite rhetoric surrounding the 'temporary nature' of reguee camps, Dadaab has seen continued and ever more sophisticated construction in the UNHCR compound, suggesting there is little confidence among assistance providers their their presence will decrease in years to come.

  • International Presence

    The combined Dadaab camps constitute the largest refugee camp in the world, and international relief organizations are present in great numbers, each with a field office in the UNHCR administered Dadaab compound.

  • Lockdown

    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.

  • Lifeline

    The IOM-chartered flight between Dadaab and Nairobi was restricted as the Kenyan government and interational organizations reacted to the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers in the Dadaab camps in October of 2011.

  • Security

    There is no substantive police presence in the Dadaab camps, and refugees are left at the mercy of bandits, thieves, and militants from al Shabaab. Reports of armed groups attacking, raping, and abducting refugees are not uncommon.

  • Camps within camps

    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.

  • Residents

  • Building Materials

    Despite having been in existence for over 20 years, and undergoing continual permanent construction, the Dadaab compound continues to retain a decidedly 'temporary' aesthetic, utilizing canvas and sandbags as building tools.

  • Days without number, nights without end.

    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.

  • Save the Children

    The NGO presence in Dadaab has been so long lasting that various organizations have built permanent operations. The Save the Children warehouse flag is tattered by years of exposure to the elements.

  • Desolate

    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.

  • Bones

    A 'no mans land' of about four meters separates the Dadaab UNHCR compound's outer fence from its inner fence.

  • Somalia

    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.

  • Vantage

    The future of the Dadaab refugees appears bleak, as the Kenyan government increases its anti-Somali rhetoric and few - if any -options exist for durable long-term solutions.

  • Departure