Choosing Among Bad Options in Dadaab Refugee Camp

Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, has never been an easy place to live. Stretching for miles and across arid land in Kenya’s underdeveloped northeast region, Dadaab is home to several hundred thousand refugees, primarily from Somalia, who are seeking refuge from war and hunger in their home country. Dadaab’s residents subside on monthly food rations, struggle to find work among limited opportunities, and face restrictive Kenyan policies that prevent the establishment of anything resembling permanent infrastructure.

But now, with the Kenyan government’s announcement in May that it intends to close the camp by the end of this year, the situation for Dadaab’s residents has only worsened. The sense of anxiety and despair about the future is palpable. Last week, I visited the Dadaab camp with Refugees International President Michel Gabaudan and met with many of its inhabitants. The refugees told us that, while faced with the prospect of returning to Somalia – a country they believe is still too dangerous to return to – they fear that if they do not accept a United Nations-offered return package and go peacefully now, they may be forcibly repatriated by the Kenyan government later.

This anxiety is clearly evident among students at one of Dadaab’s secondary schools. Limited resources have always constrained opportunities for children in Dadaab to attend and complete high school. But those who are able to attend and graduate can pursue scholarships at Kenyan universities and a future outside of the camp.

The United Nations says that returning to Somalia can only be voluntary. But how can returns be voluntary if there is a deadline for it?”
— Somali refugee in Dadaab refugee camp

However, with the announcement of the camp’s likely closure, education in Dadaab now faces a precarious future – whether Kenya moves ahead with its threat or not. One headmaster told us his school used to have a 95 percent attendance rate. But now, attendance has dropped to 50 percent and at times, drops even lower. While some students have already returned to Somalia (where two decades of civil war have decimated the education system), many, he said, have just dropped out because their motivation is gone. They say to him, “What’s the point of being in school? Even if I sit for my exams, I’m going back to a place where there are no schools.”

We spoke with several students in form 3 (the equivalent of junior year of high school in the United States). One young man, Mohamed*, told us, “We need an environment that is suitable for learning. The news about the repatriation has affected us emotionally. We came here for a better life and the problems in Somalia are still there.” Another, Abdi*, said, “I wanted to try for a scholarship to university, but now all those dreams have come to an end.” A young woman, Amina*, said, “We want to stay in school. We want to show the world that education is the major tool to uplift people’s lives.”

I was impressed by their commitment and eagerness to strive and improve their lives and those of their families. Mohamed said that his family had returned to Somalia, but that he chose to stay in Dadaab in the hope that he could finish school and take the national exams next month.

Before our conversation finished, they said to us, “We have a question for you: The United Nations says that returning to Somalia can only be voluntary. But how can returns be voluntary if there is a deadline for it?”

The threatened camp closure may be a bluff, but the fear that has been instilled in its inhabitants is real. And so are the consequences.

That is the central question. The UN Refugee Agency is supporting and facilitating “voluntary” returns with monetary packages, while Kenyan government officials carry out a propaganda campaign – through radio messaging and visits to the camp – saying that it is time for refugees to go. The threatened camp closure may be a bluff, but the fear that has been instilled in its inhabitants is real. And so are the consequences. For now, Mohamed, Abdi, and Amina are continuing their studies in uncertainty – taking their futures one day at a time. But for their classmates who have given up hope and dropped out of school, how much has already been lost?

*Names have been changed to protect identities.