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Dadaab Camps Staring At A Crisis

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
BY ELENA VELILLA

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Today marks the world refugee day, yet, as years pass; there is nothing to celebrate for the Somali refugees who live a shadow of lives in Dadaab. The camps now have a bigger population than Nakuru, Kenya’s fourth largest city and their population face poor living conditions, recurrent disease outbreaks, insecurity and indefinite exile.

Since October 2011, the deterioration of the security environment in the camps and the closure of registration centres for newly arrived refugees have seriously hampered the delivery of health and other essential services in Dadaab. Under these conditions, it is only a matter of time before Dadaab heads once again for a humanitarian emergency probably of much larger scale than that witnessed in the first half of 2011. Indeed, with insecurity curtailing aid actors’ ability to rapidly expand their operations, the type of surged intervention that overcame last year crisis is not anymore feasible.

Dadaab camps were created in 1992 to accommodate mainly refugees next to the border with Somalia after it became impossible to provide them with assistance and protection due to chaos and insecurity. 20 years later, history seems to repeat itself but with a very unfortunate twist this time. Instead of being relocated to safer areas, refugees may be left with only two options: to continue suffering in the camps or return to war-torn Somalia.

It is now apparent that the Dadaab refugee operation conceived two decades ago as a temporary response has reached its limits. The current status quo cannot hold indefinitely. In such a situation, any government genuinely concerned with the fate of refugees would face the daunting challenge of a balancing act between ensuring that refugees and asylum seekers receive the protection and assistance they are entitled to and mitigating the security and environmental impact of this massive presence.

Aid actors, such as MSF, support the right of the people to flee and receive asylum in neighbouring countries and ensure the return of refugees is done in voluntary bases. But what it at stake is the preservation of both, the right to seek asylum and the refugee camp as the most appropriate temporary option for responding to the needs of civilians on the move.

Key actors can hope for the best, but given the outcomes of past efforts to “stabilise” Somalia, they should plan for the worst, including a major health crisis in Dadaab camps

Confining people in gigantic refugee camps is clearly not a long-term solution, but neither is sending them back to a country where the violence shows no signs of abating. Alternatives to solve this seemingly inextricable situation do exist and piecemeal solutions should be envisaged: moving people to smaller, more manageable camps located in a safer area, encouraging the international community to commit to more generous quotas for resettling refugees abroad, and developing more opportunities for refugees to become self-reliant.

Protracted refugee situations like Dadaab cannot be solved by humanitarianism alone, but demand political will, action and responsibility. Kenya currently carries a disproportionate burden with respect to Somali refugees, and this responsibility needs to be better shared, not only financially but physically. This World Refugee Day, together we should take the first steps to bringing refugees out of the shadows and giving them back their lives.

Dr Elena Velilla is the Medecins Sans Frontière head of mission- Kenya.


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