Established in 1991, Dadaab camp in northern Kenya is home to some 335,000 Somali refugees, making it the second largest city of Somalis after Mogadishu.
It’s increasingly become a place that a growing number of Kenyans want to get rid of, blaming Somali refugees for harbouring Somali al Shabaab extremist militants who have carried out a series of terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil.
When al Shabaab attacked Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year, killing 67 people, a senior Kenyan MP urged the government to close Dadaab, which costs the international community between $100 million and $200 million a year to run, calling it a “nursery for terrorists”.
But is it? Former Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence, who’s just spent a year researching the hopes and aspirations of refugees in the camp, bustling with businesses large and small, says it’s actually an “engine for moderation”.
It’s full of rural conservative Somalis, most of whom have grown up in the camp away from the war in an atmosphere of peace, and are now some of the best educated Somalis in the world, Rawlence told a meeting at London-based think tank Chatham House recently.
“They’ve been marinated in the NGO culture of rights for a very long time … it’s very much a liberal hegemony, the structure of authority in the camp,” Rawlence said.
Of course, life in Dadaab isn’t exactly a bed of roses either. It’s made up of a series of squalid, overcrowded camps in arid north Kenya, a region where al Shabaab militants, bandits and smugglers are active. Aid workers and police have been attacked there, and visitors need a police escort to visit the site.
It is also said to be one of the most monitored places on earth, in terms of mobile phone surveillance, Rawlence said.
The idea that Dadaab harbours militants long predates the Westgate attack. Following a string of attacks by al Shabaab in 2011, a columnist for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper wrote: “Dadaab presents a huge threat to Kenyan security … the refugee camp is probably crawling with militia. What better way for al Shabaab to penetrate Kenya’s borders than to become refugees within our borders?”
But an academic who worked in Dadaab with UNHCR said it was more likely that a small number of trained fighters were operating in the camp supported by a small minority of refugees, while the rest of the population lived in fear of them.
In April this year the police began a crackdown on people living in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, home to many Somalis, rounding people up night after night, and releasing them on payment of a bribe. The government has also ordered all Somali refugees living in urban areas to return to Dadaab.
“This sort of fomenting – whether or not it’s intentional – is resulting in growing animosity and vilification of Somalis,” Rawlence said.
Police in Nairobi dismiss Dadaab as a hopeless case, Rawlence said. “I would like to see a more positive approach, seeing Dadaab as an asset that could be mobilised, rather than seeing it as a liability that has to be contained or destroyed or moved across the border,” he added.
“If Kenya really wanted to see peace in Somalia it should be facilitating (the refugees in Dadaab), training them …. You have a friendly middle class who would be your allies … you have a captive audience there that is crying out for opportunities,” he said.