Photo by Tikkho Maciel on Unsplash

It was a cool morning in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Amphile Kassim sat cross-legged on a thin mattress at his home, pondering the past as he stroked his red-hennaed goatee. Amphile, popularly known as Anfi, spoke about the day when, as a ten-year-old, he first became a refugee. Anfi, an ethnic Somali, and his family fled clashes in their home town in the Bale zone of what is now the Oromia region of Ethiopia. It was 1974 and Anfi, alongside his parents and siblings, sought asylum in neighbouring Somalia. After the central government in that country was toppled in 1991, he and his family left again, this time for Kenya, where they were granted asylum and settled in the Dadaab refugee camp.

For more than two-and-a-half decades, Dadaab refugee camp has marked the beginning and the end of Anfi’s story: a dusty outpost in north-eastern Kenya that welcomed its first inhabitants when Somalia’s government dissolved and a congeries of factions wrought havoc across the country. Since then, Dadaab has grown to become the world’s largest refugee complex, at one point hosting over 600,000 people displaced from more than a dozen countries. The refugees are dispersed across five camps located in just under a twenty-mile stretch. Ethnic Somalis like Anfi make up 95% of those refugees, with the latest numbers from the UNHCR showing over 260,000 Somalis call the place home.

The sun was starting to crack through the mud and stick house that Anfi has called home for years, turning the shades of morning into day. Anfi had an imperturbable tranquillity about him. His demeanour was like an unrung bell; one could never be sure of what he would say next, or which event from the past he would recall. When his family set off for Somalia from Ethiopia that fateful morning, he reflected, ‘I never thought I would be a refugee for this long.’ Officially, he is now a fifty-two-year-old man who has spent the last four decades of his life as a refugee – running, relocating, and waiting. Through it all, he said, he’d relinquished all hope of ever going back home. He repeatedly stated that he had pledged his allegiance to the UNHCR, which oversees the camp, as ‘my government’, its white-and-blue logo as ‘my flag’, and the refugee camps as ‘my only country’.

But if Anfi was clear-eyed about the past, he definitely wasn’t about the future. After more than two decades of effusive warmth towards refugees, a cold front was enveloping Dadaab. In November 2013, the Kenyan government signed, together with the Somali government and the UN refugee agency, a tripartite agreement to repatriate Somali refugees in Kenya on a voluntary basis. The impetus behind the agreement was the build-up of a series of events from 2008 to 2011, when renewed conflict and severe drought led tens of thousands of Somalis to cross the border and seek relief in Dadaab. The 2011 drought was especially catastrophic, leading to the death of almost five per cent of the entire Somali population and warranting more than a billion dollars in aid efforts.

At the height of relief efforts in October 2011, two staff members working for the humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières were kidnapped from Dadaab. A few days later, Kenya’s army invaded Somalia in order to mount an attack against Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group that reportedly carried out the abduction. Over the next few years, Al-Shabaab responded with deadly force, carrying out attacks across Kenya that targeted churches, bus stations and nightclubs. In September 2013, the group carried out a deadly attack, killing sixty-seven people at the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Immediately afterwards, officials in the Kenyan government called for the closure of Dadaab, labelling it a breeding ground and ‘nursery for terrorists’.

This was followed by the launch of Operation Usalama Watch (Peace Watch) in April 2014, which led to the rounding up of almost four thousand people of Somali descent, mostly refugees, residing in urban areas. The operation, aimed at flushing out illegal immigrants and Al-Shabaab sympathisers, was mostly carried out in Somali-populated neighbourhoods in the capital, Nairobi. Those apprehended were held in detention centres that were labelled as ‘concentration camps’, in conditions described as reminiscent of British gulag camps in Kenya in the 1950s, when the colonial government detained, tortured and abused Kenyans agitating for independence. Dozens of Somali refugees were deported back to Somalia after being summarily held and without appearing in a court of law, according to Human Rights Watch.

Eight months later, on December 8, 2014, the UNHCR started the pilot phase of the project aimed at repatriating Somali refugees in Kenya. The agency called the process ‘a significant step to address the needs for lasting solutions to one of the world’s most protracted refugee situations’. Ten days later, a fistfight broke out on the floor of Kenya’s parliament – broadcast nationally – as legislators passed a controversial and wide-ranging security law. Several provisions in the law were aimed at capping the total number of refugees living in the country to 150,000 – there were 600,000 at the time – and limiting the movement of refugees to designated camps. Human rights groups cast this as a cautionary tale that implied that the refugees could be forcibly returned, thus contravening national, continental and international laws pertaining to the protection of refugees. While High Court judges later declared the previous conditions unconstitutional, they nonetheless upheld parts of the law that placed restrictions on the movement of refugees within Kenya.

This was further compounded by an attack at the Garissa University College in north-eastern Kenya on 2 April, 2015. Al-Shabaab militants killed 148 people, most of them students, in a deadly dawn raid that occurred just seventy miles from the Dadaab refugee camp. After this episode, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto called for the camp to be closed within three months and for all refugees to be relocated. ‘The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,’ Ruto announced in a statement.

After the Garissa University attack, said Anfi, the events of the last few years fused to create a tale of hardship in Dadaab: rising insecurity, lack of proper sanitation, outbreaks of disease and police harassment, combined with a sense of foreboding about what the repatriation process would mean for his family’s future. As these events unfolded, humanitarian agencies, including the World Food Programme, announced they were reducing food and aid rations due to dwindling funds. For decades, humanitarian agencies and foreign donor governments had sponsored operations in Dadaab with little or no burden falling upon the Kenyan government. The government’s encampment policy, however, had left the refugees with few, if any, options to decrease their dependency on aid and create sustainable livelihoods.

‘We feel like we are in a warehouse,’ he said. ‘There’s no movement. We are just seated in one place. It’s like a prison.’

Now Anfi and hundreds of thousands of refugees like him are worried about what the place they have called home for decades will become in the next few years. In early May 2016, the Kenyan government disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), the government agency that registered and managed refugees, paving the way for the closure of the Dadaab camp. It was a crossroads moment and Anfi worried about his wife, whom he married before moving to Kenya, and their children. His frustrations almost weaved into a conspiracy: he alleged that authorities overseeing the camp were working against the refugees, deliberately cutting back basic services to pressure them to leave.

‘Where do I go back to?’ Anfi said, throwing his long arms and scrawny fingers up in the air. ‘I have nothing to go back to.’

To get to Dadaab, one has to get clearance from the DRA, the now-disbanded government agency that once oversaw the registration of all refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. The DRA’s office was located in the quiet Nairobi suburb of Lavington, at a house called the Castle, whose architecture is reminiscent of a colonial fort. It has large imposing windows, expansive rooms, and an eerie, quiet feel. When I visited in December 2015, I couldn’t help but notice the discrepancy between the building’s grandiose façade and the people it was meant to serve. There were calendars with kitsch graphic designs hanging on the walls, displaying the agency’s motto: Refugees are people.

After I received my clearance form, I rode on an early morning bus from Nairobi heading to Garissa town. Garissa is the administrative centre that oversees the six constituencies that make up Garissa county; Dadaab is one of them. The bus, which was speeding, was decorated with religious paraphernalia and stock photos that declared ‘There’s no God but Allah’ and had phrases celebrating Islamic holidays. After six hours of driving through central Kenya’s green and misty highlands, we crossed over to the barren land and hot climate of Garissa. Located just 220 miles from Nairobi, Garissa is a booming, congested township that the International Police once deemed the safest town in East and Central Africa. I slept in Garissa for the night, before proceeding the next morning to Dadaab.

The Google Maps app will inform you that the distance between Garissa and Dadaab can be covered in an hour and twenty-five minutes by car. Instead, it is a three-and-a-half-hour drive through monotonous terrain, strewn with acacia and shrubs and with no landmarks. The only measure of familiarity on these deserted roads is the hearty exchange of greetings between drivers who stop their cars to say hello, or who drive fast past each other while honking. The scenes whizzing by are of unnerving banality, full of sleepy hamlets where mothers holding their naked children peer at passing cars from under the shade of trees. Young girls, standing nearby, rush towards buses and commercial trucks, hoping they will stop for passengers to buy camel and goat milk packaged in used plastic bottles.

Before completing the trip to Dadaab, my driver, my fixer and I stopped in the small village of Hagar Buul. We were seated inside a shed, where a solar-powered television was on. Four men were chewing khat, a mildly stimulating plant. They were drinking tea and watching Fox News’s Sean Hannity talking about Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate. The men had chapped lips and dusty legs, and each one had a dagger and a walking stick placed not far from him. ‘This old man should win,’ one of the men said, referring to Sanders. He had a bulge in his cheek from stuffing the khat in his mouth. ‘No, no,’ a man sitting to his right, clearly not feeling the Bern, said. ‘The lady should win. She deserves it.’ They got into a kerfuffle about leadership, women and American democracy, and soon enough, the Sanders supporter who held the remote control started flipping channels. He finally settled on the Russia Today channel, which was advertising a documentary about members of Kenya’s Maasai community visiting Russia, titled ‘Maasai: From Sand to Snow’. Shortly afterwards, we left the men to their khat. We drove speeding through the difficult terrain and emerged from winding, labyrinthine and sandy lanes to reach Dadaab town at around six o’clock in the evening.

Dadaab is a refugee complex divided into five camps. There’s Hagadera, Dagahley and Ifo, which hosted the first wave of refugees who arrived in 1991. Then there are the more recent Ifo 2 and Kambios camps, constructed for new arrivals in July and September 2011 respectively. Each of the camps is divided into sections that are named in alphabetical order. Each section is divided into blocks, and each block has its own community leaders, a playground, health clinics, mosques and a tap stand for collecting water. Some houses are built with corrugated iron and sticks and others with stones, but they almost all feature a tarp. There are bustling markets, especially those in Hagadera and Dagahley camps, which sell cheap utensils, textiles and toys. There are pharmacies, banks, restaurants, money transfer agencies, technology shops and meat-selling vendors pitched right next to barber shops and salons. Over the years, Dadaab has developed into a town, a remote outpost with a geographical outline that looks like a lazy, slouching L-shape when viewed on a map.

Across the camps, billboards describe methods to prevent the spread of cholera, HIV and a slew of other diseases. NGOs advertise their work on metallic boards with verbs as predicates describing their activities: supplementing, rehabilitating, implementing and supporting projects in Dadaab. An endless list of NGOs dots the Dadaab landscape: the International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, World Food Programme, Lutheran World Federation, International Organisation for Migration, African Development Solutions, and many more. The organisations’ combined efforts have made Dadaab a federal city that offers its stateless residents the perks of education, health and water, as well as economic opportunities. Twenty-five years since it was first established, Dadaab has morphed into a permanent home for many – a self-styled refugee republic for people locked in a cycle of waiting and waiting.

Between December 2014 and October 2016, a total of 33,000 Somalis were repatriated from Kenya to more than thirty-one locations across Somalia. For the Somali refugees, the repatriation wasn’t a popular idea: a joint UNHCR–IOM survey carried out in 2014 concluded that only 2.6% of the refugees living in Dadaab wanted to return. The response was positive among the refugees who arrived in Kenya after the start of this millennium, who were more confident of returning to their properties or had access to relatives or friends who would assist them with rent or accommodation. Those like Anfi, who arrived in the early 1990s, said they didn’t want to go back because they didn’t feel they would have access to viable economic opportunities.

Kenya’s threat to close the camp was in total variance with the voluntary nature of the tripartite agreement entered into by Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR. The fifteen-page document notes that no matter what, Kenya will continue to provide protection and assistance to all refugees until a long-lasting resolution is attained – that is, until peace is achieved in Somalia. Looked at from that angle, the tripartite agreement seems a weak pact. It is based on assumptions – security in Somalia is improving; Kenya has suffered a heavy economic and security burden in hosting the refugees – rather than focusing on the volatile and unpredictable circumstances that would face returnees on the ground. For the refugees, deciding to go back to Somalia is like striking a Faustian bargain, but without getting anything at their end. Somalia, for one, faces more critical and complex problems than it faced a decade or two ago. Food insecurity threatens millions due to a prolonged lack of rainfall linked to climate change. Terrorist attacks carried out by Al-Shabaab have become a mainstay across cities and towns in Somalia. Corruption and poor management of public finances have also bedevilled Somalia’s internationally-backed central government. This is not to mention the real-life, game of thrones politics playing out across the country’s federal states.

However, according to legal analysts, for all its weak provisions, the tripartite agreement is a progressive document that, on paper, takes into account the needs of refugees who are willing to go back. It prevents involuntary separation of family members; makes sure that refugees have the proper education, birth, marriage and divorce papers; ensures that children, women and the elderly receive adequate support during reintegration; exempts tax from personal and communal wealth accumulated over the years; and mandates the Somali government to expedite residency status for any non-Somali members of a family.

The agreement ‘contributes to some sort of progression,’ says Andrew Maina, who works as a programme officer with the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, an NGO that works to protect refugees and stateless people in Kenya. ‘It is not [just] basically going home that is the agenda; it is going home in safety and dignity.’

The process of repatriation starts when a refugee household arrives at one of several designated return helpdesks across the five camps. These desks are arranged in a three-tier way: the UNHCR acts as the lead agency that facilitates the return, seconded by the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides information on areas of return, and ending with Kenya’s DRA desk, which authorises travel documentation for the refugees. The entire process takes up to a week. This, UN officials say, is enough time for returnees to discuss with friends and notify family members of their decision to go back.

But for some refugees who have been in Dadaab refugee camp for a long time, the swiftness with which the process is carried out is a major downside. One afternoon, while paying my lunch bill at Midnimo Restaurant in Hagadera camp, I asked the cashier about his take on the repatriation plan. He told me he had six children; the eldest was thirteen years old. He said he wasn’t planning to go back, but even if he decided to go, the adjustment would be too problematic for his family. ‘My kids don’t know Somalia,’ he said. ‘I can’t start this conversation with them now.’

When I countered that it was tough to be in a refugee camp for more than two-and-a-half decades, and perhaps it would prove better to go back to Somalia, he started shaking his head. ‘In Kenya we are refugees. If you go [back to Somalia], you become a refugee in your own country,’ he said. His plan wasn’t to look back but instead, to go forward. ‘I have hope that I will be resettled. I want to go to America,’ he said.

To help the residents of Dadaab get used to the idea of going back to Somalia, the UNHCR organised ‘go and see’ and ‘come and tell’ visits for a group of selected refugees. The teams, comprising twenty or thirty people, visited cities like Mogadishu and Kismayo, and came back to the camp to share their findings with fellow refugees. Somali government officials received them in Somalia and helped them visit schools, hospitals and government departments, besides organising meetings with businessmen, youth and women’s groups.

Aden Rashid, a repatriation officer with the UNHCR, said this was all part of an effort to provide information to the Somali refugees, not to actively promote returns to Somalia. The UN, he said, was aware of the fragility of the situation in the country and would not actively encourage refugees to go back. The visit, he said, was part of their strategy to let the refugees tell their own story and share their experience of visiting Somalia after such a long time.

Hawa Abdi Mohamed, a community leader who lives in Dagahley, was part of a group that visited Kismayo in November 2015. Hawa herself fled the city and came to Kenya as a refugee in 1992. She gave birth to thirteen children – three of whom died – while living in the camp. Riding in a government convoy, the group visited the Kismayo port, once a profitable commercial hub for Al-Shabaab. They toured the city’s international airport, visited health and educational institutions, and assessed the possibility of returning to Kismayo. But Hawa couldn’t recognise the city she knew as a young woman and recoiled at the thought of the level of destruction in it. The semblance of stability there, she said, was confined to the borders of Kismayo town, with anything beyond it dangerous and inaccessible.

One afternoon, during the group’s stay in Kismayo, a succession of gunshots rang out in the air from close by. A lady in Mohamed’s group started running around in fear, until someone yelled at her to duck for cover. Thinking about it now, Hawa giggled at the memory and exclaimed in dismay how she had forgotten the sound of war and got used to relative peace in Dadaab.

During the Kismayo visit, she also thought of her own children’s safety, specifically that of her eldest daughter, who has four children of her own and is pregnant with a fifth. ‘I couldn’t recognise Kismayo. So what about my daughter?’ she wondered. Her children love Kenya, the country where they grew up, and the dilemma was that they didn’t know anything about Somalia.

It wasn’t lost on Mohamed that her children and grandchildren were first and foremost refugees: Somalis living in a country whose collective disposition of late was not receptive and accommodative to people like them. Within the Kenyan society, public opinion has experienced the polarisation of being either humanitarian and welcoming towards the refugees, or vehemently calling for them to be expelled. Influential columnists have called Dadaab ‘a dangerous staging post’ and called for the ‘aliens idling’ in Dadaab to be expelled and the camp promptly closed. Al-Shabaab’s repeated targeting of Christians in Kenya has also tugged at the heart of a predominantly Christian nation hosting predominantly Muslim refugees. This has inadvertently given the refugee issue a religious dimension and underpins the debate on how religious harmony can be sustained.

‘We think of this repatriation day and night,’ Mohamed said, staring at the sandy ground. She wiped sweat from her face with the ends of her long, pink jilbab. She said that what she’d seen in Kismayo made her strongly believe in her earlier conviction: that the timing of the repatriation process would not be propitious. ‘It’s like choosing the lesser of two evils.’

Young or old, man or woman, people’s stories in Dadaab are told in fragments, narrated in the form of a patchwork of memories about a brutal war, a lost relative, a ruined home and a hankering for a country mired in conflict. A chorus of fatalism is almost always present in the threads of these stories. Accounts are familiar on the whole, yet dissimilar in their specifics. The refugees put on a mask of stoicism and sturdiness even though they admit to their own vulnerabilities. Some, like Anfi and Hawa, are old enough to remember what they lost. Others, born and bred in Dadaab, are young enough to know only the trap that has caught them and the precariousness with which they are building their future.

During my visit, radio stations played and replayed sponsored public service announcements extolling the benefits of going back to Somalia. Walking through Dadaab, you notice empty courtyards, proof that neighbours have decided to leave. Conversation in mosques was about how an aunt, a friend or a brother was vacillating between going and staying. Somali refugees I spoke to were incredulous about rumours regarding repatriation, about any information coming from Somalia. They worried about the economic and social bonds they had established over decades, and whether they were ready to abjure the realm and leave Kenya for good. The repatriation process, many said, was presented to them as a fait accompli, and now they just had to watch and see it unfold.

I asked Anfi if he had thought about leaving the Dadaab refugee camp. He said he had considered going to Borama, a city in the autonomous region of Somaliland in north-western Somalia; he had friends there and would be able to get work.

Would he consider going back to Ethiopia where he was born, I asked.

His answer came out of his mouth like dragon fire: ‘No! No! No!’ He said that he got goose bumps after I asked him that question, and gave me a serious look. A few minutes later, he was emphatically opposed to leaving the camp at all.

Despite the hard conditions in the camp, Anfi clung to what was great about his life. He thought of his grandchildren, his son who had just finished high school, his daughter who was about to get married. He enjoyed his work as a vaccination nurse, which he had done for decades with different organisations. He got up and brought back certificates of recommendation from Médecins Sans Frontières officials, which described him as an honest, flexible, reliable and hardworking employee, from when he worked at a health post in Dagahley.

‘Sometimes, death is better than life,’ Anfi concluded. He said he really hoped that his family’s resettlement plan to the United States would go through soon.

He looked downcast, and fondly touched the certificates of recommendation. Clouds were gathering in the sky and the blue horizon was turning dishwater grey.

‘It’s a very, very tough issue,’ Anfi said. ‘But Allah will open a door for us.’

[*This essay was originally published in Refugees Worldwide, a non-fiction collection edited by Jethro Soutar and published by Ragpicker Press. HERE is how you can order a copy of the beautiful collection, which also features a piece by Nigerian novelist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.]




About the Author:

The journalist Abdi Latif Dahir was born in Kenya but grew up in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Abdi studied at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi and earned his master’s degree from Columbia University. Abdi works as a reporter with Quartz, a digitally native news outlet that is a guide to the new global economy.