Last week’s confirmation by the UN of a cholera outbreak in the world’s biggest refugee camp is as disconcerting as it is thought-provoking. The news from Dadaab in Kenya comes barely a month after the kidnapping of two Medecins Sans Frontieres aid workers in October from the camp, and follows countless reports of rape and abuse on the sprawling site. How is it that these locales, which play host to some of the world’s most vulnerable people tend to be intrinsically unhealthy and dangerous? What is clear is that a rethink of the safeguarding of refugees is needed.
The Dadaab camp, located 100km from Kenya’s northeastern border with Somalia, has been quietly amassing refugees for two decades, but the speed of its population swell in 2011 has been unprecedented. Its population has almost doubled in the space of a year, from 276,599 inhabitants in 2010 to an estimated 525,000 in October 2011. The camp is now at its largest since the original IFO site was established in 1991.
The majority of the camp’s most recent arrivals have walked for days or weeks from southern Somalia to find solace from the harshest famine of the last half-century in the Horn of Africa. Their escape from the deadly concoction of rising food prices, climatic change, successive crop failures and insufficient agricultural investment that have contributed to East Africa’s most hard-hitting famine since the 1950s has been accelerated by the unstable political landscape of the region, which has virtually paralysed aid penetration to the affected people.
Upon arrival at Dadaab, refugees quickly find themselves absorbed into the complex hierarchy of the camp. Along with the pressures of being a ‘newbie’ in a long-established community, unless a refugee is lucky enough to be a clan leader or has been able to save some produce to sell, the most likely scenario for a new arrival is to be assimilated into Dadaab’s most numerous and destitute social group - what Michel Agier classes the “beneficiaries of minimal aid”. This existence – a routine of nothingness between the disbursement of fortnightly food rations - m causes many to be crushed by self-confidence crises following long spells of inactivity as previously skilled workers find themselves jobless for months or maybe years. Worse still, the starvation that has driven many refugees to the camps is unlikely to cease.
This prospect of protracted quasi-limbo is replicated in refugee camps across the world. The dearth of political will from host states to resolve the underlying problems of refugee camp life is not only determined by the paucity of economic means that face developing countries (the location of most of the world’s refugee camps), but also, according to Tina Rosenburg, the “fear that if refugees are allowed to make lives for themselves, they will not go home again”. So the hardscrabble reality of these camps is something that refugees are forced to adjust to in the long term – regardless of whether or not they harbour a desire to return home.
Rosenburg suggests that displaced persons should avoid camps altogether and settle in urban centres. She cites the ‘successful’ examples of “Angolans in Zambia and refugees in Uganda from South Sudan and elsewhere”. There are certainly some instances of refugee assimilation in both cases, but equally there are other contexts where exponential population growth has led to unsustainable land use and exacerbated pre-existing problems. The influx of Rwandan refugees in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Bukavu, for example, led to a huge increase in tree-felling for firewood and impromptu unsustainable building practices that directly worsened the city’s problematic landslides, not to mention the social stigma attached to being a Rwanda in the city.
Refugee camps should certainly remain a destination of last resort. But their ad hoc demand, which usually positions them on or near the borders of territories enduring crises, ensures their longevity and prevalence for sometime. For this reason, the starting point for any response to the problem of refugee camps has to address the fundamental flaws in their designs.
Of course, it is unreasonable to expect any refugee camp, or urban area for that matter, to endure a huge population increase as Dadaab has done without serious consequences for its local environment and its inhabitants’ living conditions. But, a more flexible approach in providing temporary services that also facilitates a return to productivity is needed.
These proposals though are few and far between. John D. Liu, the founder of the Environmental Education Media Project, proposes creating a “series of specially adapted containers that travel like all containers on flat bed trailer trucks and can be moved to any location as required”. These mobile units are not exactly a groundbreaking concept, but they do at least challenge the degrading sanitation and food preparation facilities – or lack thereof – that form the basis of daily life for the millions of displaced peoples globally. Unfortunately, however, models like this do not address the long term quagmire of protracted refugee crises.
As much as the notion of beleaguered non-citizen guests sits uncomfortably in an international system based on cohesive sovereign states, the sustainable development of refugee camps cannot be ignored as their functions are becoming increasingly long-term. With voluntary repatriation a complex and difficult procedure, and certainly not the solution to ameliorating camps themselves, governments and aid agencies alike have to face up to changing situations on the ground.
The myriad of backgrounds that make up refugee settlements often fails to be reflected in approaches solely focused on aid distribution. More emphasis needs to be put on strengthening inhabitants’ fledgling community structures through longer term schemes to hone individual skills. The proposed DadaabNet, a low cost wireless intranet system with free educational and information content, would be a useful mechanism to improve the flagging communications between refugees and aid workers, an issue identified in a recent report by Internews. Although this will run into countless operational issues, and is by no means a silver bullet to solve communications, it is a step in the right direction for the implementation of community-led visions.
Other empowering projects could include community-built infrastructure projects to improve drainage during rainy seasons and community-run gardens to grow crops suited to arid conditions such as groundnuts, millet and sorghum. These would not only help tackle confidence crises, improve the environment and diversify diets, but could also harness and improve skills in the long term.
The problem facing any of these proposals is the shortfall of funding for humanitarian relief programmes. But with only a one-fiftieth of global humanitarian assistance going towards education there is clearly also a shortfall in long-term strategies. Overcoming the short-termist culture that denies the emerging realities of refugee camps remains a crucial stumbling block. If the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) could earmark more of its largest ever donation from IKEA towards durable community-empowering projects, which add value to the people and local economies of refugee settlements, then perhaps even host nations would alter their approach to them.
As things stand, meagre political will coupled with the demand for short-term relief are a hindrance to fostering new ideas on longer-term approaches. But an honest dialogue about how to move beyond the current reality of refugee camps is needed in order to avoid condemning the people of Dadaab to perpetual misery.
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