My Journey to Dadaab

By Mark Yarnell

This post originally appeared at The Refugee.

When the Kenyan government announced in December last year that all Somali refugees living in cities must move to the Dadaab refugee camp, I made plans to visit that camp. I wanted to see the place that was already home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis, and where the government planned to pack in thousands more.

After flying from Nairobi to Dadaab (and trying to take in the sheer expansiveness of the refugee settlements from 10,000 feet), I spent most of my first day in meetings behind the blast walls and barbed wire of the UN Refugee Agency staff compound. But the compound is several miles from the nearest settlement, and well away from the sea of crammed tents and make-shift shelters.

The next morning, I followed a Kenyan police escort toward the Kambioos section of Dadaab. When traveling around refugee camps, you get used to riding in the UN’s standard-issue white Land Rovers. But our car that day had armor plates.

Ever since the Kenyan military crossed into Somalia a year-and-a-half ago in pursuit of the Al-Shabab militant group, Dadaab has been rocked repeatedly by roadside explosions, targeted killings of refugees, and kidnappings of aid workers. Hence the security measures from our UN hosts. But while aid workers can adopt extra security protocols (like limiting the time they actually spend in the camp each day), the refugees themselves are left to fend for themselves. And according to recent reports, more and more refugees are deciding that life in the camp is simply unbearable and are taking their chances back in Somalia.

When I arrived in Kambioos, I met with a group of refugee leaders to discuss the challenges of life in Dadaab. Not surprisingly, they had a lot to say. They explained that many residents have been living in old, dilapidated tents with no locks. Kambioos doesn’t even have a site where its 18,000 residents can obtain food, so each head of household must travel by bus to a neighboring site - a daunting task for disabled residents and the elderly. The journey can also be a dangerous one for women, and the refugee leaders pointed out that some have been raped while traveling between sites.

After many months, in January the Kenyan government finally recognized Kambioos as an “official” section of Dadaab. As such, the UN is now able to establish services that were critically lacking – like a food distribution point and a formal market area.

The refugees said they were hopeful that their situation would improve, but they also told me that they were frustrated by the number of interviews they give to researchers and advocates like me, often without any discernible progress to show for it.

I can understand their frustration. I believe deeply in the importance of humanitarian advocacy, and I believe that we can enhance the lives of refugees and displaced people through policy. But we also have to make this a two-way exchange. As much as we rely on the stories of displaced people to power our advocacy, we also need to communicate to them how their stories shape the policy debate and affect change.

After I return from Dadaab to the bubble of Washington, DC, the stories and experiences of refugees are always front-and-center in my discussions with policymakers. These stories reveal what life is actually like for them. They give meaning to the statistics and help leaders here think more clearly about the issues. The more that we can bring the voices of refugees directly to donors and government officials, the better. And the more that we can convince refugees of the importance of that voice, the more empowered they will be.


Thanks for your blog on

Thanks for your blog on Dadaab. A group of us are committed to building an early years school there (3 of our board are Somalis who lived in Dadaab) and I am always eager for info.