500,000 Refugees, Countless Stories: Welcome to Dadaab

When the idea for a documentary project about the world’s largest refugee camp came about, in early 2011, Dadaab, Kenya was a place that few had heard of. A haven for those fleeing armed conflict, disaster, or persecution, on the border with Somalia, Dadaab was already home to the world’s largest refugee camp – a dubious honor it held by a wide margin. And yet to most, Dadaab simply drew a blank.

All that changed in early 2011, when the looming famine in the Horn of Africa sent refugees flooding into the camp. Soon after, as famine was formally declared in Somalia, international journalists followed. For the first time in years, Dadaab was suddenly in the news: an international symbol for a humanitarian crisis. There were 500,000 refugees in a camp that was built for 90,000.

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We’re doing a video about the challenges of information dissemination between the various organization in Dadaab and the refugee community and how FilmAid is uniquely able to help in that struggle by producing informative videos that can convey life-saving knowledge on a large scale in a a variety of languages.

Saturday was spent drowning in acronyms and interviewing numerous reps from a variety of NGOs here at the camp.  Above are some photos I took along the way.  The first two are on the outskirts of Dagahaley camp, which is known as Bula Bakti or “place of the corpses.”  This is where the refugees have to wait for several weeks before they are processed through the system.  The security here is very ineffective, and it is a frequent occurrence to wake up and find a tent destroyed and a woman inside who has been raped in the night.  The second two are at the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) medical center, also in Dagahaley, in the malnutrition ward.

Kenya’s Newest City
The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is the world’s largest. The machinery of international famine relief is in full gear there, but hundreds of thousands of people may become long-term residents. Conditions have prompted a camp manager to transform a temporary refuge into a city of the future.

Somalia suffers from the double curse of drought and war. The situation has worsened in the twenty years since the nation’s central government collapsed. And now international speculators, betting on agricultural commodities markets, have driven up prices and forced people like Nuriya to leave their homes. The West gives millions of dollar every year; but the West also takes. Dadaab and its residents are a microcosm of Africa, a place full of people forced by war, global markets and drought into a life that could not exist without the global aid machine.  >continue<

Ben Rawlence has written a new book about the world’s largest refugee camp – the Dadaab complex in Northern Kenya. It opened in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing civil war. It’s now home to nearly a half million people, testament to the reluctance of the world’s governments to offer safe harbor to those fleeing war and economic collapse. Rawlence says when tens of thousands of Somalis poured into Dadaab during a 2011 drought, they found “a groaning, filthy, disease-riddled slum heaving with traumatized people with not enough to eat.” Rawlence first went to Dadaab as a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa. He’s made seven extended visits, getting to know residents struggling with the limbo of refugee status – unable to return to homes they left, but prevented from making new lives in a host country. Rawlence’s book explores the camp through detailed portraits of nine refugees. Rawlence is the author of an earlier book, Radio Congo, and has written for several publications including the Guardian and the London Review of Books. He spoke to Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies about his new book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.

Author Profiles The ‘Traumatized People’ Living In The World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Responding To Drought In The Horn of Africa

Drought currently affecting the Horn of Africa is exacerbating already precarious conditions for many people in eastern Africa. MSF teams are seeing a dramatic effect on the Somali population—both those in Somalia and the many who have fled to overcrowded camps in Dadaab, Kenya, and parts of Ethiopia. The numbers of malnourished children in MSF feeding programs in these areas are rising. This, along with the conflict in Somalia, limited access to healthcare, high food prices, and inadequate aid amounts to a widespread humanitarian crisis.

Photo: A malnourished child rests inside MSF’s inpatient therapeutic feeding center in Dadaab. (Kenya 2011 © Yahya Dahiye/MSF)


As the school year begins, UNICEF has created a new education programme for refugee children at the Dadaab camps in Kenya.

Noor, a fifteen-year-old orphan from Somalia, is determined to get an education and has been enrolled for classes.

There are 150,000 children of schoolgoing age at the Dadaab camps, but so far only a third of them have access to education facilities.

Find out more about the East Africa children’s crisis. 


Young Somali students living in Kenya’s Dadaab camp, the world’s largest refugee camp, sent letters of encouragement to Syrian refugee children who also had to flee their homeland. They offered messages of solidarity, encouragement and advice. In their letters, they emphasized the importance of studying and gaining an education while in the camps. "Our beloved brothers and sisters, go and work hard in school, be the stars and the new presidents of Syria,“ Dahir Mohamed wrote in an inspirational letter.

See more photos and letters via BBC News


Here are some of my first photos out of the refugee camp in Dadaab.  This was at an extension of Ifo camp, which was just built less than 2 weeks ago, and is already home to around 10,000 refugees from Somalia.  In the second photo, the boy is carrying wooden planks inscribed with classroom lessons, which are used in the school.


Independent Television News’ Martin Geissler reports from the intensive care unit at Hagadera Hospital in Dadaab. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled from Somalia into Kenya. Be advised: This story does contain disturbing images.

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On Crisis Hopping

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Image by Sam Loewenberg. Kenya, 2011.

Last week Pulitzer Center grantee Sam Loewenberg, filed one of the first reports from Dadaab, the immensely over-crowded refugee camp in Northeastern Kenya and ground-zero of the Somali humanitarian crisis.

Loeweberg’s report for TIME came the day before the UN officially declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia. Since then, the story has exploded in the mainstream media and the UN’s World Food Program began airlifting food in earnest to areas hardest hit by famine and drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

My question is, why so much attention now? The UN and other aid agencies have tried to raise awareness of the crippling drought that is a major factor in the current famine for nearly a year. 

“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act…by the time the U.N. calls it a famine, it is already a signal of large-scale loss of life.” —Fran Equiza, regional director of Oxfam, quoted in the Washington Post 

As Loewenberg points out, "The drought and skyrocketing food and fuel prices that have pushed populations in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia into dangerous levels of malnutrition were forecast last winter.” Too, anyone familiar with Dadaab will tell you it has been on the verge of catastrophe for at least the last decade. If not drought, then floods; if not famine, then severe overcrowding.

To be sure, the situation in the Horn is a complex amalgam of failed governments and repressive anti-government militias, as well as schizophrenic aid and intervention policies. That said, I can’t help but feel this is the latest in a long line of examples of our collective inability to focus on more than one crisis at a time, and more crucially of our savant-like ability to gloss over the most entrenched and systemic crises in favor of those sexier and easier to digest.


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A Day in Dadaab: Four Somali Refugees Tell Their Story

In 2010, we did this feature on life in Dadaab, which was already one of the world’s most congested refugee camps. A musician, a poet, a mother, and a woman with a song testify to not only the hardships of life in a refugee camp, but also portray an image of the cruel realities of life in Somalia.

Find udpated information on the situation in Dadaab here.

A Somali boy stood on a cannister Wednesday as he waited to collect water at the UNHCR’s Ifo Extension camp outside Dadaab, Kenya. The Dadaab refugee camp is the largest in the world. The current population is over 400,000 with thousands of new arrivals crammed into areas outside the camp. (Photo: Jerome Delay / AP via the Wall St. Journal)

The heavy rains soaking the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya – the largest in the world – would normally mean sweet relief. But this year the rains have also caused an uptick in cholera, a potentially deadly disease caused by a bacteria that spreads through contaminated water.


(Somali boys fetch water from a puddle in the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.)