Kenya can turn the Dadaab refugee camps into an asset
Wednesday 18 April 2012 11.51 BST
Instead of being a burden, the 500,000 Somalis in the camps should be
integrated into Kenya's economy as part of a development plan for the
Over the past few weeks, Kenyan government ministers have made persistent
calls for the country's Somali <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/refugees
refugees to be "resettled" inside <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/somalia
Somalia. These calls echo the sentiments of President Mwai Kibaki, who said
onference-on-the-future-of-somalia> February's London conference on Somalia:
> Kenya can no longer continue
carrying the burden."
But is the refugee presence in Kenya really a burden? Could it not be a
force for development there? If Kenya's government approached the refugee
issue as part of its development strategy, it could yield a win-win
First, as Kenya's government knows, sending half a million refugees back to
Somalia is politically and logistically impossible for the foreseeable
future. Any forced returns will attract international condemnation – not
something Kenya, rightly proud of its reputation as a generous refugee host,
Kibaki is right that the current situation is unsustainable, especially in
the overcrowded and insecure Dadaab camps. But his government could change
that situation in a way that would benefit both Kenya's international image
and its economy. If the government changed its counterproductive encampment
policy for refugees and included Dadaab in its development plans, Kenya
could reap major economic and human benefits.
Of course, we don't often think of refugees as an economic asset. Usually,
they are seen as vulnerable, lacking capacity, or a drain on the resources
of host communities. A visit to Dadaab shows how misguided that can be. The
camp has half a million residents and hundreds of thousands refugee stories.
There are the new arrivals, many ill and in a desperate state after
dangerous and exhausting journeys; there are those who have lived most of
their lives in the camps and developed thriving businesses. If counted as a
city, Dadaab would be Kenya's third largest – the economic possibilities are
> 2010 study commissioned by the
Kenyan, Danish and Norwegian governments showed that the Dadaab camps bring
about $14m into the surrounding community each year. The study also found
that the annual turnover of refugee-run, camp-based businesses in Dadaab is
around $25m. In an area as impoverished as Kenya's north-east province,
these are big numbers indeed.
The international <http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/aid
agencies that have run Dadaab for two decades have kept its residents in
"care and maintenance" operations throughout, with even long-term residents
still receiving food aid. The reason? Not a desire to create dependency, but
rather the Kenyan government's policy of encampment, which prevents refugees
from leaving camps without a permit or taking formal employment. Many aid
agencies have wanted to promote refugee staff to more senior positions, but
have only been able to pay them "incentives", not salaries.
Ironically, the recent security crisis in Dadaab may provide an opportunity
to shake up the aid operation and give refugees greater autonomy. Since
Kenya invaded Somalia in October, there has been a spate of attacks in
Dadaab, presumed to be executed by sympathisers of the Islamist militia,
al-Shabaab. Aid workers have been kidnapped, refugees involved in camp
security have been killed, and Kenyan police have been targeted in bombings.
As a result, aid workers have less access to the camps, leaving refugees
without important services like advanced medical care and victim support.
But the situation is also forcing agencies to finally hand over more
supervisory and management responsibilities to refugees.
Donor governments should undertake to convince Kenya that this is a positive
shift, encouraging it to integrate the camp into Kenya's economy. One way to
do so is by publicly recognising Kenya's major role in providing refuge to
so many Somalis over the decades. As the UN high commissioner for refugees,
-claims-in-industrialised-countries-up-sharply-in-2011.html> noted last
month: "The number of asylum claims received across all industrialised
countries [in 2011] is still smaller than the population of Dadaab." Kenya's
international partners cannot forget the enormous scale of this commitment,
and they must acknowledge it.
Financial and technical assistance must remain generous. Lifesaving aid is
still getting into Dadaab, and it must continue to be funded, but
longer-term development is what's really needed. Continuing to run these
camps as emergency operations after 20 years is not in anyone's interests.
It is dehumanising for the refugees, and fails to capitalise on the economic
opportunities for Kenya. Doing the hard work of enhancing refugees'
education and skills will be expensive (especially if insecurity persists),
but it will pay real dividends.
Development for Dadaab should also be included within a broader development
plan for Kenya's north-east province, where the camps are located. So far,
it has not been prioritised for development by the Kenyan government, so
international donors (including the World Bank, European development
institutions and USAid) should work with Kenya on increased long-term
development funding for the region. This should be accompanied by changes in
Kenya's laws on refugee employment, which would benefit the wider community.
Taken together, these would be important investments both for Kenya's
economy and for the future of Somalia. Turning Dadaab into a place where
Somali refugees can develop and use their education and skills would make
them better, more productive residents of Kenya while they remain in the
country. More important, it would better equip them to rebuild their own
nation once they are ready to return home.
• Melanie Teff is senior advocate and European representative for
> Refugees International
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Received on Wed Apr 18 2012 - 10:26:23 EDT