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Vast Refugee Camp in Kenya Swells as Drought Hits Somalia

DADAAB REFUGEE COMPLEX, Kenya—Magan Noor Abdi was 17 with three children the first time she fled Somalia. It was 2010, and famine was coming.

The second time was a decade later. Al-Shabaab militants infiltrating her hometown had beaten her husband so badly that he couldn’t support a family that had grown to eight children.

Last year, the East African drought—now the region’s longest on record—devastated a third of Mrs. Abdi’s crops. Al-Shabaab stole another third. Pregnant again, Mrs. Abdi crossed into Kenya again in search of food, water and safety.

“I’m not planning to go back,” said Mrs. Abdi, now 30, her 10th child on her lap in a shelter jury-rigged from branches and fabric. “Nobody’s there anymore.”

The Ifo refugee camp in Kenya, one of three in the Dadaab complex.


FilmAid Kenya

Thirty-five years of war, erratic rains, hunger, extremist terrorism and political instability in Somalia have created a generation of refugees, many of them commuters who flee when they must and return home when they can.

The three camps around Dadaab town were built in the early 1990s as temporary havens for Somalis escaping that period’s famine and clan warfare. They now make up an apparently permanent city with a population the size of Anaheim, Calif., inhabited largely by refugees and the relief workers who aid them.

Today, more than 325,000 refugees live in Dadaab, according to Kenyan government figures, and the number of residents is swelling once again.

Kenya is planning to add two more camps to the complex to house new refugees fleeing the catastrophic drought and a Somali government offensive against al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate. Some 3,000 refugees arrive weekly, Kenyan and international aid officials said.

Dadaab is now home to more than 325,000 people, most of them refugees from neighboring Somalia.

New arrivals are allowed to set up homes near the Dadaab complex but get less aid than registered refugees.

As many as 8.3 million Somalis, around half of the population, will face hunger this year, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which monitors hunger crises around the world. The U.S.-funded group projects that famine will be declared for parts of the country between April and June. A formal classification of famine means that two out of every 10,000 inhabitants die from hunger a day and about one in every three children is acutely malnourished.

“At the moment we’re seeing an upsurge in acute malnutrition,” said Sharon Chepkorir, nutrition manager for the International Rescue Committee, a relief agency that runs a hospital in Hagadera, the largest of the Dadaab camps. Last year, 32 babies died at the hospital from malnourishment and related conditions.

Joe Nguli, a retired Kenyan army colonel who manages the camp for the Kenyan government, said he was shocked by the aura of permanence when he first arrived in Dadaab.

“Initially it was to be [there for] three years,” Mr. Nguli said. “Then it grew to five years. And now it has been forever.”

Somali refugee Dhool Abdrihman held her 5-month-old baby at a ward for malnourished children at the Hagadera camp in Kenya’s Dadaab complex.

Baby Kalson, held by grandmother Halima Abdi Kasim, has her weight checked at the International Rescue Committee’s ward for malnourished children at the Hagadera camp.

In Dadaab town, fleets of white United Nations Land Cruisers pass curbside shops named for U.N. missions of the past: Baghdad, Lebanon and Bosnia. The camps have schools, hospitals, vegetable sellers, butchers and lively camel markets, set among neatly swept homesteads laid out along dirt roads.

Some 97% of the camps’ refugees are Somalis, with a smattering of South Sudanese, Congolese, Burundians and others. Over the years, several thousand Dadaab residents have moved to the U.S. as part of a Washington-sponsored resettlement program.
Kenyan authorities have over the decades sent mixed signals about Dadaab’s future. Last year, government officials gave aid agencies two weeks to close it down, only to reverse themselves before the edict was enforced.
Kenya stopped registering incoming refugees in 2016 and since then has allowed new arrivals to set up informal homesteads near camp boundaries. The latecomers receive U.N. food and medical care but are entitled to less aid than registered refugees. Unlike recognized refugees, they aren’t assigned plots of land and often squat on unoccupied land in shelters built of sticks covered in tarps provided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR says pledges—mainly from the U.S., European Union and Persian Gulf states—routinely generate only about 40% of the $80 million to $100 million needed to operate Dadaab annually.

Contributions have plunged drastically in the past year, with the world distracted by the war in Ukraine, said Guy Avognon, the agency’s head of operations for Dadaab. This year, donations are projected to cover just 27% of the $102 million needed, the UNHCR says.

Kenya contributes in kind, providing camp security and allowing refugees to use local courts and gather wood from surrounding areas for cooking and construction.

The Hagadera refugee in Kenya camp hosts a livestock market.

People waited for water in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex in January.

Relief organization Doctors Without Borders reported treating 12,007 patients last year—a 33% jump from 2021—in its pediatric ward and inpatient feeding center in Dagahaley, one of the Dadaab camps. Medical teams have been battling a cholera outbreak here over the past few months.

On a typical day at the pediatric stabilization ward in the IRC’s hospital in Hagadera last month, 21 children under the age of 5 struggled to gain weight, the worst-off listless in their mothers’ arms.

One new mother, Ebyan Siyad Gedi, 16, lived with her husband in Kismayo, a port in southern Somalia, until October. The family lost their camels and cattle to drought, and Mrs. Gedi, pregnant, walked for three days on her journey to reach family and give birth in Dadaab, according to her mother, Halima Abdi Kasim.

Mrs. Kasim, 45, has lived in Dadaab since 1992, the year before the infamous Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, killed 18 Army Rangers, Delta Force operators and other American troops. The deaths prompted a withdrawal of U.S. forces from an international military mission originally intended to keep order during a famine-relief effort.

Now Mrs. Kasim spends her afternoons fanning her 4-lb. newborn granddaughter, Kalson, who wears a necklace of leather pouches containing Quranic verses for divine protection.

“I don’t have a plot of land or a business or a house in Somalia,” said Mrs. Kasim, a widow. “I believe this is my home.”

Jawahir Mohamed Ahmed said she had returned to the Dadaab camps from Somalia to escape al-Shabaab.

Residents aren’t allowed to travel outside of the camps without special permits, although a new Kenyan law promises to provide long-term settlements for at least some refugees and allow them more freedom to move and work. The government has yet to lay out details of the settlement plan.

“You can’t force people back home,” Mr. Nguli said.

Many of Somalia’s woes follow the refugees to Dadaab. Al-Shabaab carries out attacks on the Kenyan side of the border, which is about 45 miles away, planting roadside bombs and shooting up police stations. Aid workers move around Dadaab escorted by police armed with military rifles, although the security forces themselves are often the targets of militant attacks outside the camps.

Jawahir Mohamed Ahmed, 40, is on her third stint as a refugee in Dadaab. The first two times she was fleeing drought and hunger. This time it was al-Shabaab that drove her to abandon her hometown, Jamaame, on the banks of the Juba River.

Al-Shabaab fighters dragooned her son, Abdikadir Mohamed Ali, into a military training camp. He says he managed to escape through a hole in the fence and hide out at his uncle’s house. The family fled in the dark of night to Kismayo, where relatives gave them enough money to reach Dadaab.

In the camp, Mrs. Ahmed washes clothes for other refugees to supplement her U.N. rations. One of her children, 18 months old, is enrolled in a malnutrition program.

“We’re refugees,” Mrs. Ahmed said. “We don’t have ID. We can’t leave the camp. There’s no work.”

But, she added, “it’s better than being in Somalia.”

The population of Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps grows by an estimated 3,000 a week.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at Michael.Phillips@wsj.com

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