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Ifo II camp in Dadaab.
Ifo II camp in Dadaab.
Dadaab is located in Kenya
Location in Kenya
Coordinates: 0°03′04″N 40°18′50″E / 0.051°N 40.314°E / 0.051; 40.314Coordinates: 0°03′04″N 40°18′50″E / 0.051°N 40.314°E / 0.051; 40.314
Country  Kenya
County Garissa County
Population (January 2016)
 • Total ≈328.000
Time zone EAT (UTC+3)

Dadaab is a semi-arid border town in Garissa County, Kenya. It is the site of a UNHCR base hosting 329,811 refugees in five camps as of October 2015, making it the largest such complex in the world.[1][2] The center is run by the UNHCR, and its operations are financed by foreign donors.[3] In 2013, the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement facilitating the repatriation of refugees at the complex.[4]



The Dadaab camps Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo were constructed in 1992. The more recent Ifo II and Kambioos camps were opened in 2011 after 130,000 new refugees from Somalia arrived, due to severe drought.[1][5] The Ifo II camp extension was originally constructed in 2007 by the Norwegian Refugee Council, in response to major flooding that destroyed over 2,000 homes in the Ifo refugee camp. However, legal problems with the Kenyan Government prevented Ifo II from fully opening until 2011.[6] As of August 2015, Hagadera was the largest of the camps, containing just over 100,000 individuals and 25,000 households.[1] Kambioos, on the other hand, is the smallest camp with fewer than 20,000 refugees.[1]

Ifo camp was first settled by refugees from the civil war in Somalia, and later efforts were made by UNHCR to improve the camp. As the population of the Dadaab camps expanded, UNHCR contacted German architect Werner Shellenberg who drew the original design for Dagahaley Camp and Swedish architect Per Iwansson who designed and initiated the creation of Hagadera camp.

Population growth and decline[edit]

In July 2011, it was reported that more than 1,000 people per day were arriving in dire need of assistance, largely due to the drought in East Africa.[7] The influx reportedly placed great strain on the base's resources, as the capacity of the camps was about 90,000, whereas the camps hosted 439,000 refugees in of July 2011 according to the UNHCR.[8] The number was predicted to increase to 500,000 by the end of 2011 according to estimates from Médecins Sans Frontières. Those population figures ranked Dadaab as the largest refugee camp in the world, which it still is today despite a recent drop in numbers.[9]

According to the Lutheran World Federation, military operations in the conflict zones of southern Somalia and a scaling up of relief operations had by early December 2011 greatly reduced the movement of migrants into Dadaab.

Arrival at Dadaab[edit]

A recently arrived family in Dadaab.

When refugees arrive at the camp, they are registered and fingerprinted by the Kenyan government.[10] The camps are managed by the UNHCR, but other organizations are directly in charge of specific aspects of the refugees' lives. CARE oversees social services and the World Food Programme (WFP) helps alleviate the food scarcity issues present at the camps. Until 2003, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided refugees with access to health care, but now German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) controls this aspect of refugee life in Dadaab.[5] Refugees arriving at Dadaab receive assistance from each of these organizations, but due to overcrowding, aid is often not immediate.[11]

Other relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, also provide assistance to refugees in the Dadaab camps.[12] Specifically, the Red Cross gives refugees in the Ifo II camp access to health services, sanitation, and clean water.[12] In an attempt to reduce the spread of disease, they recently installed 8,000 latrines in the camp, as well as hand washing stations in schools.[12]


Until recently, the local population traditionally consisted of nomadic ethnic Somalis camel and goat herders.[13] Since the 1990s, however, the influx of refugees has dramatically shifted the demographics of the area. Most of the people living in Dadaab have fled various conflicts in the larger Eastern Africa region. The majority have come as a consequence of the civil war in southern Somalia.[14] According to Human Rights Watch, most of these displaced persons belong to the Bantu ethnic minority population as well as the Rahanweyn clan. Most of the latter have migrated from the southern Jubba Valley and the Gedo region, while the remainder have arrived from Kismayo, Mogadishu and Bardera.[15]

According to the UNHCR, 80% of residents were women and children and 95% were Somalia nationals as of mid-2015.[2][16] Of the registered refugee population from Somalia, the number of men and women is equal, but only 4% of the total population is over the age of sixty.[1] Each year, thousands of children are born in the Dadaab camps, and now many adults have spent their entire lives as refugees living in the camps.[1][13] These individuals have been referred to as the "camp's first children."[13] One of these refugees, Aden Ibrahim, reports a sense of displacement and feeling like he is neither a Somalia national nor a Kenyan, while also not feeling like he belongs in the Ifo camp where he lives.[13]

Structure of the camps[edit]

UNHCR packages containing emergency supplies for refugees, following the 2006 flooding.

The Dadaab refugee camp complex is so vast that it has been compared to a city, with urban features such as high population density, economic activity, and concentration of infrastructure.[17] Like a typical urban area, Dadaab contains public service buildings such as schools and hospitals.[13] The Ifo II camp, for example, includes religious spaces, a disability center, police stations, graveyards, a bus station, and more. In addition, it is designed in a grid-like pattern, with the market on one side and a green belt at the center of the many lines of tents.[12] Despite these many amenities, however, the camps are crowded and have few signposts, making them confusing and difficult to navigate for new arrivals.[13]

Living conditions[edit]

With camps filled to capacity, NGOs have worked to improve camp conditions. However, as most urban planners frequently lack the tools to contend with such complex issues, there have been few innovations to improve Dadaab. Opportunities remain such as upgrading and expansion processes for communications infrastructure, environmental management and design.[18] Some of the factors affecting quality of life for refugees are diet and malnutrition, shelter, health care, education, environmental factors, safety, and their economic and legal status.

Diet and malnutrition[edit]

Refugees receive food rations containing cereal, legumes, oil, and sugar from the World Food Programme (WFP).[19] Markets at each of the camps have fresh food for sale, but due to limited income opportunities, most refugees are unable to afford them.[19] Some have used innovations such as multi-storey gardens to help overcome food scarcity, which require only basic supplies to construct and less water to maintain than normal gardens.[20]

One reason refugees arrive at the camps is displacement caused by famine. By the end of 2011, more than 25% of refugees living in the Dadaab camps had arrived as a result of the famine in the Horn of Africa.[21] Individuals arriving under these conditions are already very malnourished, and once at the camps they still experience food scarcity.[11] Although malnutrition contributes to high death rates among children, it has been observed that the longer an individual has already lived in Dadaab, the more their chance of dying from malnutrition decreases.[22] Due to overcrowding and lack of resources, refugees don't receive their first food rations until 12 days after arrival, on average.[11] Food rations are generally distributed to children under the age of five first, because they are at the greatest risk of malnutrition and starvation.[10]


Refugee shelters in the Dadaab camp complex, made with plastic sheeting.

Refugees in Dadaab typically live in tents, made of plastic sheeting and distributed by the UNHCR.[23] Despite recent repatriation of some residents, the camps are still enormously overcrowded and contain over three times as many people as there was intended to be space for. There are no formal living structures, and residents have built makeshift homes for shelter and to escape the heat of the sun.[11] On average, four people live together in each household.[1]


Access to education is very limited in Dadaab, restricting refugees' ability to find a job and become less reliant on aid organizations.[13] Dadaab has only one secondary school, and those who manage to be educated there can receive jobs working for aid agencies such as CARE, WFP, or GTZ that distribute resources to refugees.[13] Those who are uneducated can pursue unskilled jobs in restaurants or helping load and unload trucks, but instead many turn to more dangerous ways of surviving.[13] One refugee stated that crime can be a tempting option, and many young girls engage in prostitution to be able to provide for their families.[13] In 2011, only about 48% of children in Dadaab were enrolled in school.[13]

Health care[edit]

Despite the efforts of GTZ to provide health care, the spread of infectious disease is still common among the camp settlements. Refugees living at the camp face numerous threats to their health, including diarrhea, pulmonary issues, and fever. Between June and October 2011 an outbreak of measles caused many more deaths.[22] Hepatitis E is also a constant threat, as the camps often have poor sanitary conditions and unclean water.[21] In 2012, outbreaks of acute jaundice syndrome (AJS) and cholera simultaneously plagued the refugees in Dadaab.[21] On a typical day, some 1,800 refugees get outpatient treatment in hospitals inside the camps.[24] Since 2015 Dadaab boasts the largest solar-powered borehole in Africa, which is equipped with 278 solar panels and provides 16,000 refugees with a daily average of about 280,000 litres of water.[25]

Environmental factors[edit]

Women distributing water at the base.

Deforestation has an effect on the lives of Dadaab's residents.[26] Despite typically being required to remain in the camp, residents often have to venture out in search of firewood and water, and are forced to travel farther due to deforestation in the areas closest to the camps.[26] This leaves women and girls vulnerable to violence as they journey to and from the camp.[26]

In 2006, flooding severely affected the region. More than 2,000 homes in the Ifo refugee camp were destroyed, forcing the relocation of more than 10,000 refugees. The sole access road to the camp and to the town was also cut off by the floods, effectively cutting off the town and refugee camps from essential supplies. Humanitarian agencies present in the area worked together to bring vital goods to the area.[27][28]

In 2011, the drought in East Africa caused a dramatic surge in the camps' population, placing greater strain on resources.[29] By February 2012, aid agencies had shifted their emphasis to recovery efforts, including digging irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.[30] Long-term strategies by national governments in conjunction with development agencies are believed to offer the most sustainable results.[31] Rainfall had also surpassed expectations and rivers were flowing again, improving the prospects of a good harvest in early 2012.[32]


While all refugees at the camp are at risk of violence, the UNHCR and CARE have identified women and children as being particularly vulnerable.[33] They have created a department called 'Vulnerable Women and Children' (VWC) to tackle the issues surrounding violence against these populations.[33] As of August 2015, 60% of Dadaab's total population is under the age of 18, and there are equal numbers of men and women, so women and children make up a significant portion of the camps' demographics.[1] Specifically, the VWC department has identified rape victims, divorcees, widows, orphans, and the disabled as the most vulnerable among all women and children.[33] They offer counseling, additional food rations and supplies, and advice on how to earn an income and be financially self-sufficient.[33] However, the effectiveness of these efforts has been questioned, and following an analysis by Dr. Aubone at St. Mary's University, more research and data is required to identify the best way to prevent sexual violence in the Dadaab camps.[34]

Economic and legal status[edit]

CARE Youth Center in Dadaab.

Dadaab is run by the UNHCR, and its operations are financed by foreign donors.[3] Despite this, public perception in Kenya is that refugees in general cause a strain on the economy. Research, however, has found that many refugees are economically self-sufficient for the most part.[17][35] Refugees are not protected by the Government of Kenya (GOK), contributing to the dangerous living conditions and outbreaks of violence.[35] Because they are not protected under the law and are unable to possess a Kenyan national identification card, refugees are constantly at risk for arrest.[13][35]

In order to try to further increase the economic independence of refugees living in Dadaab, CARE has initiated microfinance programs, which are particularly important for encouraging women to start their own businesses.[36] However, recent scholarly research has identified some flaws with microfinance, arguing that it has unintended negative consequences.[37] Microfinance typically requires borrowers to pay very high interest rates, which can be detrimental to the poorest of the poor if any unexpected problems or crises arise.[37] Living in a community with other very poor individuals can also make it difficult to make a profit from a business venture, because potential customers are not able to afford the service or product that is being sold.[38] Others have argued that julius is beneficial to individuals as a short-term solution to escape poverty, but that it does not improve the economy of a community or country as a whole.[39]

CARE is also working to create more inclusive markets that refugees are able to participate in to profit off of their newly acquired skills and business ventures.[36]

Leaving Dadaab[edit]

A Somali UNHCR repatriation official.

In November 2013, the Foreign Ministries of Somalia and Kenya and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement in Mogadishu paving the way for the voluntary repatriation of Somalia nationals living in Dadaab.[4][40][41] Both governments also agreed to form a repatriation commission to coordinate the return of the refugees.[40] This repatriation effort was in response to an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and belief that al-Shabaab, the militant group responsible for the attack, was using Dadaab to recruit new members.[42][43] Slightly over 2,000 individuals returned to the Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayo districts in southern Somalia under the repatriation project.[2]

Despite these government endorsed repatriation schemes, the majority of the returnees have instead repatriated independently.[41] By February 2014, around 80,000 to 100,000 residents had voluntarily repatriated to Somalia, significantly decreasing the base's population.[4]

Threat of camp closure[edit]

Following the Garissa University College attack in April 2015, which resulted in 148 deaths, the Kenyan government asked the UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to a designated area in Somalia within three months.[44] The proposed closure was spurred by fear that al-Shabaab was once again recruiting members from Dadaab.[43] The Federal Government of Somalia and UNHCR later confirmed that the repatriation would continue to be voluntary in accordance with the tripartite agreement, and that eight districts in Somalia from where most of the individuals had come had officially been designated as safe for repatriation.[16][45] The three-month ultimatum passed without Dadaab being closed; on 5 August 2015, the first group of 116 persons voluntarily returned to Somalia.[44]

Some individuals have reported that the anxiety caused by the government repeatedly threatening to shut down the camps is enough to convince them to leave. Without job availability or reliable access to food, greater opportunities exist for some outside of Dadaab.[23] At the same time, others have fought back against the government's threats to close the camps, fiercely stating that there are no terrorists in the camps and that they refuse to leave.[42]

On 6 May 2016, the Kenyan government again announced it would close Dadaab as well as Kakuma refugee camp. The government declared it had already disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs as part of the move. Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Interior Karanja Kibicho declared, "Due to Kenya's national security interest, the government has decided that hosting of refugees has to come to an end. The government acknowledges that this decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees but Kenya will no longer be hosting them."[46] According to The Economist, the "threat of closure is a desperate appeal for more funds" to deal with its hosting of refugees.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "UNHCR Refugees in the Horn of Africa: Somali Displacement Crisis". UNHCR Refugees in the Horn of Africa: Somali Displacement Crisis. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  2. ^ a b c "UNHCR chief visits Somali port of Kismayo, meets refugee returnees". UNHCR. Retrieved 12 May 2015. 
  3. ^ a b "Baobab - Africa". The Economist. Retrieved 18 June 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c "Nairobi to open mission in Mogadishu". Standard Digital. 19 February 2014. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Abdi, Awa (2010). "In Limbo: Dependency, Insecurity, and Identity Amongst Somali Refugees in Dadaab Camps". Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies. 5: 7. 
  6. ^ Daniel Howden (August 2011). "UN and Kenya attacked over $60m Somali refugee camp that still stands empty". 
  7. ^ "Inside world's biggest refugee camp". July 8, 2011. 
  8. ^ "UN High Commissioner for Refugees applauds Kenya's decision to open Ifo II camp". UNHCR. Retrieved 19 June 2012. 
  9. ^ "Dadaab: The World's Biggest Refugee Camp". July 11, 2011. 
  10. ^ a b "Inside world's biggest refugee camp - Al Jazeera Blogs". Al Jazeera Blogs. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Kenya: Fleeing Somalis Struggle To Find Shelter At The World's Largest Refugee Camp". MSF USA. Retrieved 2015-10-19. 
  12. ^ a b c d "Dadaab: how we're helping in the world's largest refugee camp". Retrieved 2015-11-24. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "No Direction Home: A Generation Shaped by Life in Dadaab". UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 2015-11-23. 
  14. ^ "Refugee Reports November 2002" (PDF). 
  15. ^ Human Rights Watch Plan (PDF). Human Rights Watch. p. 17. Retrieved 18 June 2016. 
  16. ^ a b "Interview: UN refugee chief stresses voluntary return of Somali refugees in Kenya". Goobjoog. 9 May 2015. Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  17. ^ a b Montclos, Marc-Antoine Perouse De; Kagwanja, Peter Mwangi (2000-06-01). "Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socio-economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern Kenya". Journal of Refugee Studies. 13 (2): 205–222. doi:10.1093/jrs/13.2.205. ISSN 0951-6328. 
  18. ^ [Mitchell Sipus] (December 2009). "Technology Based Development Opportunity Within Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya". 
  19. ^ a b "Fresh food vouchers for refugees in Kenya | ENN". Retrieved 2015-11-24. 
  20. ^ Corbett, Mary (2009). "Multi-Storey Gardens to Support Food Security" (PDF). Urban Agriculture. 
  21. ^ a b c Ahmed, Jamal A.; Moturi, Edna; Spiegel, Paul; Schilperoord, Marian; Burton, Wagacha; Kassim, Nailah H.; Mohamed, Abdinoor; Ochieng, Melvin; Nderitu, Leonard (2013-06-01). "Hepatitis E Outbreak, Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya, 2012". Emerging Infectious Diseases. 19 (6): 1010–1011. doi:10.3201/eid1906.130275. ISSN 1080-6040. PMC 3713845free to read. PMID 23735820. 
  22. ^ a b Polonsky, Jonathan A.; Ronsse, Axelle; Ciglenecki, Iza; Rull, Monica; Porten, Klaudia (2013-01-22). "High levels of mortality, malnutrition, and measles, among recently-displaced Somali refugees in Dagahaley camp, Dadaab refugee camp complex, Kenya, 2011". Conflict and Health. 7 (1): 1. doi:10.1186/1752-1505-7-1. ISSN 1752-1505. PMC 3607918free to read. PMID 23339463. 
  23. ^ a b Dadaab, Mélanie Gouby in. "Climate of fear in Dadaab refugee camp leads many to consider repatriation". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-19. 
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  26. ^ a b c Salmio, Tiina. "Refugees and the Environment: An Analysis and Evaluation of UNHCR's Policies in 1992-2002" (PDF). 
  27. ^ "Norwegian Refugee Council homepage". 
  28. ^ "Sphere Humanitarian Standards". 
  29. ^ "Plea for 'massive aid' for Africa refugees". July 10, 2011. 
  30. ^ Gettleman, Jeffrey (3 February 2012). "U.N. Says Somalia Famine Has Ended, but Warns That Crisis Isn't Over". New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2012. 
  31. ^ "The worst drought in 60 years in Horn Africa". Africa and Europe in Partnership. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  32. ^ "Number of Somali refugees declining due to aid and rainfall". 
  33. ^ a b c d Horst, Cindy (2006-05-15). Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refugee Life in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya. Berghahn Books. ISBN 9780857454386. 
  34. ^ Aubone, Amber; Hernandez, Juan (2013-12-01). "Assessing Refugee Camp Characteristics and The Occurrence of Sexual Violence: A Preliminary Analysis of the Dadaab Complex". Refugee Survey Quarterly. 32 (4): 22–40. doi:10.1093/rsq/hdt015. ISSN 1020-4067. 
  35. ^ a b c Campbell, Elizabeth H. (2006-09-01). "Urban Refugees in Nairobi: Problems of Protection, Mechanisms of Survival, and Possibilities for Integration". Journal of Refugee Studies. 19 (3): 396–413. doi:10.1093/jrs/fel011. ISSN 0951-6328. 
  36. ^ a b dfava. "Microfinance". CARE. Retrieved 2015-10-19. 
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  38. ^ Bateman, Milford (2010). Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work?: The Destructive Rise of Local Neoliberalism. New York: Zed Books. pp. 6–59, 201–212. 
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  40. ^ a b "560,000 Somalis to return home following tripartite agreement". Daily Post. 12 November 2013. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
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  45. ^ "Somalia President convenes Federal Parliament". Garowe Online. 27 April 2015. Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
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