I recently visited Dadaab, Kenya’s third-largest and fastest-growing city, having grown from 250,000 residents a few years ago to more than 400,000 today.
Dadaab is not an ordinary Kenyan city. Most of its residents are not Kenyans, but Somalis, living in a collection of refugee camps crowding the small Kenyan town that existed 20 years ago.
The camps’ earliest residents sought refuge from the fighting that has made Somalia a failed state. The 1,000+ refugees that are now arriving every day are seeking refuge from climate change, the region’s worst drought in 60 years, and the famine that it brings.
I met a group of refugees at a reception center at Dagahaley camp. They had left everything in Somalia and walked hundreds of kilometers across a dry and unforgiving landscape in a desperate gamble to find food, water and refuge in Kenya. The very young and the very old were in terrible condition. Some had already been in Dadaab for a week, living off the kindness of others, too tired to sort out their status. Now they waited patiently to be registered and to receive their initial food ration.
Looking around the camp, I could see their likely future. Refugees who had arrived earlier were cooking, sitting, or talking around water points, or in the low white UNHCR tents that were now “home”. Still earlier arrivals, also squatting outside the formal camps, were building makeshift shelters, digging pit latrines, collecting firewood, or planting dry branches to fence their meager possessions. The earliest arrivals were the most settled—living in tin-roofed houses and fenced compounds that were formally allotted, not far from the main street of kiosks, shops, and community and administration buildings that gave each camp the look of a small town.