Inside The Largest Refugee Camp In The World

Ben Rawlence's book follows nine remarkable refugees in Kenya's Dadaab camp, which is home to 350,000 people.

06/02/2016 11:30 PM AEDT | Updated 06/02/2016 11:30 PM AEDT
Ben Rawlence
Kheyro, one of the nine Dadaab residents featured in City Of Thorns. Kheyro was a student and then a teacher in the camp. She came to Dadaab with her mother Rukia when she was two, fleeing Somalia's civil war in 1992.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with author Ben Rawlence about the refugee crisis and his work in Kenya's Dadaab camp.

The European refugee crisis is just one part of a larger crisis playing out along borders and in camps across the world.

A record 60 million people worldwide are currently forcibly displaced from their homes. Among them, 14 million have already spent five or more years as refugees -- what the United Nations classifies as “protracted displacement.” Many eke out a life in refugee camps, and most do not have the right to work or move around freely.

This is the situation that confronts residents of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world. The United Nations set up Dadaab in the dusty Kenyan desert in 1991 for 90,000 refugees escaping Somalia’s civil war.

The camp is now home to over 350,000 people who live in a space of less than 50 square kilometers, according to the U.N. -- roughly as if the entire population of Cleveland, Ohio, were forced to live in an area smaller than the Ohio State University campus. Kenyan authorities claim the camp harbors members of the Somali militant group al Shabaab, and repeatedly threaten to shut it down.

Ben Rawlence first went to Dadaab as a researcher for Human Rights Watch in 2010 and ended up writing a book that follows the lives of nine camp residents, including a former child soldier and a journalist who was born blind and recovered his sight. City of Thorns, published last month, details their determination to survive and longing to be resettled elsewhere. The WorldPost spoke to Rawlence about Dadaab and how it can help us understand the global refugee crisis.

Jerome Delay/Associated Press
Dadaab was built in 1991 for refugees fleeing Somalia's civil war. Today, over 350,000 people live there.

How did Dadaab become the world’s largest refugee camp?

Initially, 90,000 people came in 1991, and then successive waves of conflict and famine in Somalia have driven many more people to the camp. People have also come from other countries, like Sudan and Ethiopia. Under Kenya’s encampment policy, the country tries to push all its refugees into camps. And of course, the residents of the camp have reproduced.

The second reason is that, once upon a time, people used to go to refugee camps and then they would go home when there was peace. If they were there for a very long time, then the international community would resettle them somewhere else. But that international pipeline is blocked because rich countries are not taking so many refugees any more, which means that people are stuck. That’s the biggest reason why Dadaab is still growing.

Ben Rawlence
Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world.

What did the people you met in the camp teach you about the experience of being a refugee?

I’m mostly in awe of them -- that they manage to find hope somewhere in the threadbare horizon that they confront; that they manage to make a life for themselves despite all of these difficulties. Looking at their situation, I feel like I would either want to instigate some kind of revolution in the camp, or else I would give up and commit suicide. But somehow, they manage to keep going and I’m hugely impressed and humbled by what they’re able to do.

Ben Curtis/Associated Press
An aerial view of a section of Dadaab in 2012.
They want to be heard, they want to have their stories recorded, and they want their lives to be imbued with some meaning.

What did the people you profiled think about the book?

I read the stories I had written in the book to the people concerned, and we had a good laugh and a good conversation about what they thought. We’re all friends on Facebook, and they’ve all received copies of the book. They’re watching the coverage since it was published and the interviews that I post on Facebook.

They’re very happy with the fact that the world is paying attention to Dadaab. The reason they talked to me is because they feel forgotten about. They want to be heard, they want to have their stories recorded, and they want their lives to be imbued with some meaning. For example, both the mother and father of Tawane [one of the main characters in the book] died this year. I had interviewed them and set their stories down in this book, and that’s quite a fitting tribute to them.

Ben Rawlence
The market in Dadaab. City of Thorns details Somalia's 2011 famine and the international community's delayed response.

As the world grapples with a refugee crisis of historic proportions that has even reached Europe’s shores, what do you hope people will take from the book?

I tried to get behind the statistics and the general images, and give this crisis a human face. I want everybody who thinks they have a view about refugees to read this book, and to be reminded -- because we need to be reminded every day -- that these people are just like us, with wives and husbands and fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers, and they deserve to be looked after.

I also tried to show the intractable politics of the situation which keeps everyone stuck in Dadaab. Unfortunately, I think that Dadaab and other temporary camps are going to become a permanent feature of our landscape.

I have such little hope that nations are going to be able to agree on how to properly look after these people. Hopefully, if there are enough reminders that these people are humans like us, we can find the resources and political will to at least make that life a little bit dignified and a little bit humane.

Ben Rawlence
Mr. Dube, a restaurateur in Dadaab who sent $75,000 to his sons in California.

Your book describes the devastating famine in Somalia in 2011 and the delayed response of the international community. How did this episode shape your understanding of how international aid works?

I’ve been working in the region for 20 years, so it was no surprise to me that the response was so delayed, and so media-driven. I’ve seen international responses rolled out in many different countries over the years, and the similarities of what happens every time is profoundly depressing. Lessons are never learned.

We need to depoliticize aid, to commit much larger funds to international institutions and to let them make the decisions about when emergency assistance needs to deployed -- rather than the current process of crisis appeals, which is not driven by technical information but by political pressure on the rich nations.

Ben Rawlence
Monday, a former "Lost Boy" born in 1981 in Abyei, Sudan, is also featured in City of Thorns. He arrived in Dadaab in 2004 after living in several refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

You discuss how media-driven the response to the famine was. How did you feel about that, given your own role as a storyteller?

I tried to give a different story. The whole media circus was premised on the idea of the stereotype -- a typical, biblical African famine that everybody wanted to photograph. What was interesting to me was actually not that image at all, but the obverse of that -- to see the international media circus from the perspective of people in the camp.

Ben Rawlence
Residents must ration oil in Dadaab. The security clampdown there after a series of al Shabaab attacks further strained life for the residents.

You write about your frustration that to Kenya and the rest of the world, people living in Dadaab are either invisible or seen as potential al Shabaab recruits and therefore, a security threat. How do people in the camp feel about al Shabaab?

It’s very frustrating that the whole conversation about the camp and about refugees is always seen through the lens of terrorism. It’s very damaging, both to the refugees themselves and to the West, because it means we can’t see these other cultures and societies in all of their glory and their nuance. We’re only looking at whether or not these people are radicalized.

Hopefully, once you finish the book, you won’t be able to sustain the fiction anymore that the camp is a hotbed of extremism. Extremism is such a sideshow -- it has no real relationship to the daily lives of these people, apart from the ways that it inspires such knee-jerk overreactions in Kenya and in the West. Yes, there are some extremists around sometimes, but that’s no more true there than in London or Nairobi or Boston. So the camp should not be defined by that.

The people in the camp are very, very annoyed about that characterization of where they live. It’s a large community of people who have known each other for years, like a big village where people leave their doors unlocked.

Ben Rawlence
An image of Kheyro's hands. Rawlence shared his account of Dadaab with the residents he'd written about, and they had a good laugh and a good conversation, he said.

What has been the impact of Kenya’s heavy-handed anti-terror tactics on the camp?

The refugees are already a defeated people. They feel if they stand up for themselves against Kenya’s crackdowns, that they’re going to have their food denied or they’re going to be sent back to a war zone, so the onus is on them to shut up and put up with it.

For a budding young anarchist or nationalist in Kenya, the expression of their radical politics frequently takes a religious form because the democratic arena has been nullified and cheapened.

So there are few repercussions for Kenya, beyond corroding Kenya’s image among Somalis and human rights organizations. This is why it keeps happening, because there’s no one to stop Kenya and say: "It’s actually in your interest to look after these people. Here’s a bunch of well-educated, middle-class Somalis, who’ve been educated on the U.N. dime, who are allies in bringing peace to Somalia, and yet you’re trying to demonize them and treat them all like terrorists."

Ben Rawlence
A house in Dadaab refugee camp. Rawlence based the title of his book on the thorns planted in the camp to demarcate boundaries.

Extremism is a mental health issue. The societies that deal with it best are the ones that are inclusive, better at integrating people, and that don’t wage foreign wars. There’s an awful lot Kenya could do to counter radicalization. The issue is not radicalization among the refugee population, it’s radicalization among its own population, including both Muslims and Christians.  

For a budding young anarchist or nationalist in Kenya, the expression of their radical politics frequently takes a religious form because the democratic arena has been nullified and cheapened. They don’t have any hope in the democratic system, so they place their hopes in a religious future.

So it’s not about refugees, but Kenya is trying to make it about refugees because they don’t want to face the harsh truth.

This interview was conducted on Jan. 29 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Rawlence went to Dadaab as a Human Rights Watch researcher and ended up writing a book about the people who live there.

More On This Topic