Inside Dadaab with Author Ben Rawlence

Dadaab Refugee Camp, comprised of five separate settlements, is the largest refugee camp in the world. Established in northern Kenya during the early nineties, the camp is now home to nearly half a million people. Despite the continued need for a safe haven, according to BBC, Kenya’s Interior Minister has promised to close Dadaab Refugee Camp as early as November 2016.

Ben Rawlence is a former Human Rights Watch researcher, a frequent BBC Radio contributor, and a critically acclaimed writer. In his recently published book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Rawlence documents life in Dadaab. Ayiba’s Akua Agyen spoke to Ben Rawlence about his experience researching refugee life in Dadaab Refugee Camp, dynamics of life in refugee camps, and pressing contemporary issues concerning refugees.

Your first visit to Dadaab was for a Human Rights Watch assignment. What drew you back to write City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp?

I thought it was such an amazing place. And I wanted to communicate what it’s like to live there to a wider audience. I was very struck by the fact that there was this twenty-year-old city that I hadn’t really heard about. That had all of these people living there who had fashioned lives in this very weird constructed limbo. Yet within all of these restrictions, there was a whole economy, a whole society. And I found that very interesting. I thought it was worthy of more attention.

Why did you tell their story? What lends you the credibility?
I went there. I saw it. And I wanted to write about it. No one else had written about it. I’d written a book before, so I had some sense that it was possible. Then I gave it a go. I think anyone can write about anything they want. The only proviso is that it’s any good. The judge of whether it’s good or not will be whether anyone buys it. I don’t think anyone needs a right to write about something.

 download (2)What did a working day look like for you in Dadaab?
Get up at seven o’clock. Have breakfast. Get in the car at eight. Go with my four armed guards that the UN made me have in case of kidnap. Because if I were kidnapped, then all of their services get shut down; they have to evacuate everyone and it’s a big headache. Then we go to the camp, we interview people for one to two hours. Back to the UN base, have some lunch. Then go back out in the afternoon for more interviews. At the end of the day we had to be back inside the UN by six to meet curfew. The UN base is like a green zone with razor wire watch towers and lots of security. Once there, I would type up my notes and have dinner. Obviously there’s a nice restaurant, there’s a bar, there’s a tennis court, there’s a gym. Three thousand people live inside the base. It’s like being on a US military base. So, it’s very well provided for. And that’s part of the weirdness of Dadaab. You have this one class of people who live in the international world with diplomatic passports, who don’t pay any taxes. And then you have all these stateless people living in terrible conditions just over the fence.

How does one cope with this juxtaposition?
The easiest thing to do is accept your privileges as your human rights and to treat the refugees as not quite human, but rather, as second class humans who are basically trying to fool the international system into getting things that they don’t deserve. There’s been quite a few anthropological studies on this. To cope with the situation, aid workers end up demonizing the people that they’re helping. Obviously, not everyone does that. That is one channel for your emotions to flow along. There are other ones. Some people end up working all the time because they’re trying to help. Some people drink or smoke a lot.


For me, I was sort of apart from that. I wasn’t part of the UN system. I was looking at the UN system and the refugees as a documentarian. My emotional response to that dissonance, to the madness of this world, if you like, not just Dadaab but the bigger world, is to try to channel that energy into a book, which reveals the situation as I see it. And gives me a sense of purpose. I had a sense of purpose in writing the book. I had a reason to be there. All of these contradictions were material for me. They weren’t things that I had to emotionally navigate; in the sense that I navigated them, I put them in the book. And then I feel bad about it later. But, that’s just the normal, liberal guilt of being well off when there are people who are not so well off that you’re close to.

The demographics of a camp change over, people begin and expand families. What does it mean to be a child in a refugee camp?
Being a kid in a refugee camp is probably like being a kid anywhere else. When you experience that situation as normal, it then becomes home. It becomes very difficult to move on and develop connections to other places. So you’re fine as long as you’re in the refugee camp. And as soon as you’re moved outside, you’ve got to adapt. You grow up with a certain kind of pathology. You don’t have the services and rights that you should have. If you grew up in northern Kenya outside the refugee camp, you may well be poorer, you may well be hungrier, but you’re free.

“For years it lay in an iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure just what it was.” That quote is from Helen Epstein and American daughter of Auschwitz survivors. Journalist Judith Shulevitz notes that, “The children of the traumatized have always carried their parents’ suffering under their skin.” Was this your experience in speaking to children from Dadaab? How did you observe any intergenerational trauma?
I agree. The story of Tawane as you will see in the book is very much a reliving of his father’s trauma. Tawane feels as if it is his own. He feels the revenge stronger than his father does. He and his brothers wanted to kill the guy who injured his father when they met him in the camp. Their father says, “no, no, we must forgive.” I very much agree with that quote. It’s very much in line with my experiences in the camp.

This passing down of trauma can make it quite difficult for sustainable peace between groups in conflict. How does refugee life impact national identity? How can peace be built in displaced communities outside of their home communities and countries?
That’s the challenge. It starts with, at least, a safe space where people can start to unravel these things. Which Dadaab used to be, but it’s not anymore. Dadaab was a site for healing, but only briefly. Now, it’s become more difficult to heal because the funding has been squeezed and the Kenyan government has been vilifying the refugees and is calling them all terrorists. It’s become a more violent place. It’s become harder to live there. When you marginalize people and you exclude them like that, you’re deferring the possibility of peace. You’re adding a generation each time that it’s going to take to get over this. I’ve heard this shorthand before that it takes four generations to get over a war. And I think that if you spend your whole life in a refugee camp, you’re not making progress in that process. You’re just deferring it to the next generation.

On national identity, I think in some ways life in camp strengthens it. It gives you this false idea of nationalism, it is related to this idea of a country rather than to your own experience of it.

After listening to and documenting the stories of refugees in Dadaab, how has the definition of home changed for you?
For me, home has always been a very clear thing. I’ve always been very aware that I am British and that my home is here. And in a way that has just been reinforced. Home is not something that you can choose. In my experience, we are very much shaped by the places in which we’re born, our first experiences, and our first sensory experiences of the world. There is a lot of discussion about how one can choose or fashion a home. And I don’t really buy it. And certainly the refugees who are in Dadaab are stuck in these narratives of home, of Somalia. That they’ve heard from their parents, from their communities. And they’re told that Somalia is home. And yet, they’re own visceral experience of the world. Where they’ve cut their first knees and shed their first tears, the ground that they have smelled or touched as children is the camp. And they do have an emotional connection to that land. Whether they like it or not. So, in a way my own feelings have been confirmed by that experience.

Last year, following the Garissa University massacre, the Kenyan government announced plans to shut down the camp. What are your thoughts? Is it time for Dadaab to close? With a population of more than 300,000 is it possible?
The law is very clear. Refugees should go home when they want to, not because they are being forced. The right to asylum is internationally guaranteed. It’s also protected in the Kenyan constitution. There is no discussion as to whether it is time. Even if there is peace in Somalia, the refugees are supposed to have a choice. Which they’re not being given.

I don’t think it’s possible to close the camp down. Because you’re talking about eliminating a city the size of New Orleans. I don’t think it’s feasible. If Kenya is serious, it will try to stop the UN from feeding people. It will stop the schools from hiring new Kenyan teachers. It will prevent movement. They will try to make life very difficult so that the refugees will go back on their own accord. And already, we’ve had ration cuts for three years in a row. Which means people have 30% less food than they need. And that’s not just to live well, that’s to survive. Already the ration cuts are pushing large groups of people back to Somalia, tens of thousands.

Are people moving back to Somalia? Or are they trying to find other camps to relocate to?
We haven’t yet seen people moving to refugee camps in Ethiopia, but I imagine that will be the next step. What we have seen is people going back to Somalia and then coming back to Dadaab again when they realize that Somalia is still unsafe.

For those who do not leave, how do they find food?
The ones who go back to the warzone are the ones who are the most vulnerable. The ones who stay in Dadaab are people who have relatives abroad who are sending them a little bit of money to help. Or they have a job in the black market. Or they have an incentive job or an internship with the UN or other aid agencies. The ones who are staying are the ones who are a little bit better off. The ones who go back to Somalia get preyed on again.

What are the jobs in the black market?
It’s Kenya’s third largest city. So you’ve got internet cafés, software colleges, people buying and selling milk, camels, cars, petrol, and plastic. Everything that you can imagine that a city of half a million people needs

UNHCR has stated that the average stay in a refugee camp is seventeen years. Among the people you spoke with, what is the average length of time spent in Dadaab?
Twenty-five years.

What differences did you see between those who have been there for decades versus those who have been there for less than ten years?
The refugees who have been there longer have alternative income streams. They’re a bit more established. They have other jobs, relatives abroad, or a business. Generally, the newer refugees are not so well established. They have less; therefore, they’re hungrier. They’re less educated. They haven’t been through the education system in the camp. Kheyro and Tawane, they speak English. They graduated high school, they got diplomas. There are more options for them because the camp has given them better equipment for a life. Whereas, those who grew up in the wars have less.

After refugees graduate high school in the camp, are there opportunities for further education within Kenya? Do many people pursue tertiary education?
Refugees can obtain degrees and diplomas in the camp and many do. And all of it is paid for by the UN. However, it’s a big waste of money on the part of the UN and the international taxpayers because the refugees do not have any opportunities to use these skills. The idea is that they’ll be equipped for a job on the outside when they do eventually leave the camp. So it’s a nice idea in theory, but when you’re in the camp for twenty-five years, it doesn’t work in practice.

The US State Department reports that two-thirds of the global refugee population or over ten million refugees live in protracted refugee situations. What are the implications of a life spent in a refugee camp? 
There is first the cost on the people who are stuck in this situation. You’re denying them the chance to live meaningful lives. You’re denying the host country the chance to make the best of half a million people who would love to work, live productive lives, and be a part of Kenyan society. It’s a huge cost. Dadaab costs and has already cost the international community billions of dollars.

You’re educating a whole middle class of people who could be the future of Somalia. But you’re not talking to them; instead, you’re demonizing them and calling them terrorists. So again, it’s a waste of the money that has been spent because of shortsightedness and xenophobia. So the long-term consequences of all of these people in camps is that we are building a nation of displaced people who are relegated to second class citizens. They are not part of the world, so they do not enjoy the same freedom and rights as people who do have citizenship. Thus, the long term prognosis is seventeen million people and growing. Which is the size of a small country, who are stateless. Who do not participate in the rest of the world. Who don’t have passports, who can’t travel, who can’t work, who can’t contribute. And that’s a tragedy. It casts into question the whole notion of the international system.

UNHCR has opened discussions surrounding the elimination of refugee camps. How do you see the future of refugee camps? Do you have any ideas for alternatives?
Ideally, you shouldn’t have refugee camps. Ideally people should have the right to move and the right to work in the place where they’ve sought asylum. That should be the future. If only nations would recognize the economics of this, which is well proven, that refugees and immigrants are always a net benefit to an economy. So that’s the rational alternative. Given that is a long way away and that xenophobia is such a problem, what we should be looking towards is building cities for the long-term rather than camps with proper infrastructure. Where people can make a life where they might want to stay, rather than places they don’t want to go to.

How do we build these cities with regard to existing communities?
You build a city that is open. Instead of all of this short-term emergency funding and aid. There should be investment; there should be preferential financing using money from the World Bank, from IMF, from one of the donors. Instead of spending that money on tents, spend that money on houses. Instead of spending that money on boreholes, spend that money on proper sanitation systems. When you’re paying for a whole food operation to distribute food, why don’t you spend that money on hiring locals as well as refugees to distribute food in the first instance. But then move quite quickly to distributing cash and setting up markets and allow opportunities for people to work. That’s the sort of thing that needs to happen. And it has happened in certain places. It’s happened in Zaatari, Jordan. They did a much better job. It wasn’t ideal, but it at least gives some kind of insight into how camps can be done.

Refugees and asylum seekers are stateless persons, but their lives are caught in the crosshairs of host country legislation, international organization policies, and international law. What are some of the frustrations that you observed and heard related to the multiplicity of governing bodies?


I don’t think there’s a problem with these competing layers of authority. In a way it’s a response to reality. The UN exists in order to help countries coordinate their quotas and needs. And it exists to try and help countries that don’t have the money or the capacity to look after refugees. There are reasons why there are domestic laws, international laws, and international bodies to deal with it. The problem, if there is one, is that most countries aren’t putting their faith in the international regimes; instead, they’re putting their faith in nations. We need more of an international response because if we had all respected the UN’s requests for assistance and fully funded the UN, there wouldn’t be ration cuts and people going hungry. If we respected the UN and abided by the resettlement quotas they suggest, we wouldn’t be in this situation we are in now. This is a backlog of people in Dadaab who have not been resettled and given durable solutions because rich countries have not stepped up and done their fair. If Europe met this problem as a block of twenty-six countries, it would be solvable immediately. It’s only .5% of Europe’s population. Europe’s population is 500 million. There’s no reason we couldn’t cope with that. But because all of these nations don’t want to do their part, the whole international system is falling apart.

How can we ensure that it’s safe for refugees to be resettled to these countries when the climate is so hostile against them?
That’s a question of law and order for the countries concerned. There’s no reason that can’t happen. That’s a question of training the police and deploying the police to work in the way they’re supposed to do. Yes, inequality, racism, dysfunctional public services are problems. But they exist whether or not there are refugees. That’s not an argument to keep refugees in camp. You’ve got to send them to America and America’s got to get a handle on its police forces anyway.


Are refugee crises a humanitarian concern or a security concern? How does this dichotomy affect refugee lives?
There’s no dichotomy. It’s both. There’s always a law and order issue wherever there are human communities. And it’s a humanitarian issue in so far as the people need looking after in the short-term. But it shouldn’t be either of those things. It should be that you have a large group of people who need a home and that they’re given a home and they’re given some assistance for a year or two to help them integrate and then they’re off. They then are part of a new society or they’re building a new city on the edge of another country. And then the humanitarian problem is gone because they’re self-sufficient. The security problem is eliminated because it follows the natural law and order process of the country where they’ve been accepted. Whether that is in a rich country where they’ve been resettled or they’ve been accepted in a neighboring country. So to me, neither of these problems is insurmountable and neither of them should be long lived.

During your time in Dadaab, what did refugees tell you was working for them, in terms of policies or programming, and what made it function? What was working against them and why? Very little that was working for them, apart from the fact that they were all very grateful for Dadaab. They were all very pleased that there was a safe place that they could go. They were not happy with the services they were being offered. They hated the ration cuts; they wished that there were more places to school. They wished that the waiting times in hospitals were shorter. But they were grateful for the international system. The big picture was working for them. But the details of everyday life were very, very trying.

What did you see really working and why do you think it did? What wasn’t working from your perspective and why not?
What works is that they’re given asylum and that they are at least housed and fed to some extent, which is more than can be said for Europe. That was good, but that’s a bare minimum really. The education is working, but it’s not enough. The previous generations, they had the opportunity to go to school. The people who have come more recently, there is a lot of pressure on school closings. The education is good, although people do not have the chance to work. Hopefully, they might find a way to use their talents in the long run.

The health is pretty good, the hospitals function. People from other parts of Northern Kenya use the hospitals because they’re better and they’re cheaper than the Kenyan government ones. And the elections. The way that the camp functions is that it has its own elections and they’re clean. They’re run by the UN and they give people a taste of democracy. So a lot of the youth consider themselves the political future of Somalia. And they’ve had a taste of democracy, they know how it works, and they want to make it work for them. So that has been very powerful.

 What lessons can countries receiving Syrian refugees learn from Kenya?
They can look at the camp and they should choose. Do they want a black market and an informal economy, with a whole load of people who are making money under the table? Or do you want to incorporate those people into the proper economy and do you want them to pay tax and want them to be productive members of society? If you’re accepting refugees, that’s your choice. You can stick them in camps and try and keep them separate and lose a lot of money and spend a lot of money. Or you can try to incorporate them into your society. And everyone can benefit.