My colleague, Melanie Teff, and I are just back from the main staff complex of the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Our RI colleagues last visited the camp and met with refugees in October 2011 , amid a major influx of Somalis seeking refuge from famine and conflict.
Since then, a series of attacks on refugees, aid workers, and Kenyan police has dramatically changed Dadaab, which has existed as a camp for over 20 years. Many believe that these attacks are linked to Al Shabab (perhaps in retaliation for Kenya’s recent military incursion into southern Somalia) but the details are not entirely clear. Regardless, the movement and activities of aid workers have been restricted significantly, reducing access and delivery of services to Dadaab’s nearly 500,000 inhabitants . Because of these limitations, this time our visit was confined to the UNHCR and NGO staff compound.
Dadaab has long been an overcrowded, challenging environment for refugees, but these mobility constraints pose a serious new challenge to operations in the camp. Some water projects are stalled, food distributions are becoming more difficult, and services beyond basic medical care have been reduced. It also didn’t help that the Kenyan government suspended registration of refugees  in mid-October. The new security environment is especially harmful for those refugees who arrived recently – many in very poor health and separated from their families.
To adapt to this new environment, UNHCR and NGO staff are devising ways to empower refugees to take on more responsibilities and build capacity. This involves strengthening relationships with refugee leaders, giving refugee workers more responsibilities, expanding training programs, and beefing up remote communications between the camp and off-site staff.
These steps, which decrease the in-camp footprint of international aid workers, present a real opportunity to shake up  the way aid has long been delivered in Dadaab, and to create programs that focus on development and skill-building for refugees.
This shift, however, will have its challenges. First, with decreased international supervision, marginalized groups within the camps could become more vulnerable. Second, without the kind of technical help the UN and its partners can provide, the health and well-being of residents could be affected. And third, though refugees may receive small sums of money for work done in the camp, they can’t be paid regular wages without work permits from the government – a very challenging prospect. Though years-long residents of Dadaab have developed informal businesses and their own community support mechanisms, they are still largely stuck within the camp system and it will be hard for them to achieve real self-reliance.
Despite all of that, the reality is that security problems have changed the landscape of Dadaab – perhaps irreversibly. Though the past month has been relatively calm, and aid workers are appearing more often in the camps, the threat of new attacks is ever-present. New ways to support Dadaab’s residents are required, and we hope that a new strategy (and newly re-energized staff) at UNHCR will mean an improved long-term outlook for these refugees.