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A Place To Call Home

In the semi-arid border region between Kenya and Somalia lies Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp which, with 330,000 inhabitants, is also one of Kenya's largest cities. First established in 1992 to house the tens of thousands of Somali refugees fleeing the chaos in their country following the outbreak of civil war, the camp has now bred generations of young people who know nothing but camp life. Over the decades it has developed from a tent encampment to a bustling city with its own shopping areas, schools, internet cafes and restaurants. The camp is managed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with other charities taking care of social and health services. The World Food Programme helps with any shortcomings in food provision to the camp.

Since the 1990s the camp has continued to wax and wane in size, with a large influx in 2011 occasioned by a regional drought taking the population to close to half a million. Upon arrival, refugees are registered and fingerprinted by Kenyan government officials and anyone wanting to travel or find work outside the camp requires permission from the Department of Refugee Affairs. Despite the length of time the camp has stood on Kenyan territory, the national government has resisted calls to naturalise any of the refugees, many of whom are born in Kenya and have never been outside the country.

In early 2016, however, the Kenyan government announced its intention to repatriate Dadaab's residents to their home countries and close the camp altogether. A couple of months later the Department for Refugee Affairs was disbanded, depriving residents of the government authority that regulated their lives and allowed people to travel and seek emergency medical help outside the camp. Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka blamed lack of international assistance to deal with the refugee situation in Kenya, saying that "we haven't gotten the kind of support that we were expecting or that the rest of the world promised."

The government's main reason for wanting to close the camp, however, is its assertion that it has become a nest of islamists allied to Somalia's Al Shabab militia which has claimed responsibility for a series of devastating terrorist attacks at Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Centre in September 2013 and at Garissa University College in April 2015 which claimed a total of 219 lives. Amina Mohamed, the foreign affairs minister, stressed that the closure of the camp was "an issue of balancing national security interests and international obligations."

To some, like Abdullahi Aden Hassan, a refugee spokesman, the order to go home is tantamount to a death sentence. "It is simply too dangerous to return at this time.". Regular suicide attacks and fighting in parts of the country bear out his assessment. Some observers believe that the Kenyan government is pushing for additional aid from foreign donors to help with the refugee situation and bolster the country's military engagement in Somalia where it is engaged as part of an African Union peacekeeping force.

Though Kenya has threatened to close the camp before, it appears that it is determined to go through with the closure on this occasion. At a meeting of the Somali and Kenyan governments with the UNHCR, tentative plans were outlined which would see 150,000 refugees moved out of the camp by the end of 2016 through a combination of "voluntary returns to Somalia, relocation of non-Somali refugees [and] de-registration of Kenyan citizens who registered as refugees." It is unlikely, however, that resources for such a mass relocation will be available in such a short timeframe.

For the people who have spent decades living and building a life in Dadaab, the diplomatic machinations could not be more remote and unfathomable. Their lives have revolved around the camp for years; children have been born and have gone to school and some people have little connection with their home country that has been devastated by more than three decades of war. Tommy Trenchard travelled to Dadaab to get a sense of daily life in the world's largest refugee camp in all its colourful vitality.
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