Choosing to Move

Part 2 of a series: Hardship and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa


By Clare Morneau 


[dropcap]R[dropcap]efugee camps are far from anyone’s ideal living situation: they are often overcrowded, underfunded and frequently dangerous. However, refugee camps can sometimes be the best alternative to an extremely difficult and dangerous situation in an individual’s home country.

With a population of over 200,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya is the largest refugee camp in the world, consisting of four camp settlements: Dagahaley, Ifo, Ifo 2, and Hagadera. These settlements are primarily occupied by Somali refugees, who arrived in the camps in two waves. The first wave, which coincided with the creation of the camp in 1991, was prompted by a Somali civil war. The second wave, occurring exactly two decades later in 2011, was the result of widespread drought and famine in Somalia.

For the refugees who fled Somalia and ended up in the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, the camp settlements are better than the situation they are fleeing, providing a safe haven of sorts. Unfortunately, this safety has been increasingly threatened by the presence of Somali al-Shabaab militants in the camp. It is arguably the actions of al-Shabaab militants that have added fuel to the Kenyan government’s argument for shutting down the Dadaab refugee complex. After two and a half decades of existence, the Kenyan government announced plans to shut down the Dadaab refugee complex on November 30, 2016. According to the government, the camp’s presence was causing instability and danger for Kenyan civilians, and the government felt the need to prioritize the safety of its own citizens.

This announcement spurred protest from the international community and non-governmental organizations alike, resulting in the closure being delayed for six months on the basis of humanitarian grounds. Following this delay, the action to shut down the camp was struck down when brought to a court based on violations of international law, namely the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This decision was a huge relief to many refugees, as the threat of closure made some feel as though they were being coerced back to their countries of origin and into a potentially life-threatening situation.

This situation raises important questions about refugee hosting and the stress it causes. Although Dadaab is primarily run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there is pressure on the Kenyan government to have responsibility and maintain a level of security in their country. For refugees, there is an intense feeling of loss and a sense of homelessness, as many feel as though they have no future in a refugee camp but are not able to return home. It is critical to address how this can be balanced. Are there solutions to the problems created by refugee hosting that do not involve forcing refugees back into conflict situations?

One way that the UNHCR has begun to address these issues is by running a voluntary repatriation program in the Dadaab refugee complex. In order to address the strain that the camps place on the Kenyan government, as well as the desire that some refugees have to return home, the UNHCR has established a program to allow for return. This program allows refugees to travel back to their home countries if they so choose, after being fully informed about the conflict or environmental state of the country. For some refugees, the decision to return home is to reunite with family members, and for others, it is to assess whether there is a life for them to go back to there.

If this voluntary repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin, particularly Somalia, increases, perhaps the Kenyan government will be put at ease. It currently seems like the only way to strike a balance in this situation, is by minimizing some of the government strain felt in the responsibility to host over 200,000 refugees in just this camp alone. However, it is also necessary to avoid the human rights violations that come from forcing refugees out of the country against their will. At the end of the day, the priority should be ensuring that refugees are safe and feel safe—and that if they move, it is because they choose to do so.


Clare is a sophomore in Morse College. You can contact her at