Book Review: Life in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

A group of young Somali girls gather in the Ifo 2 camp, located within the Dadaab refugee complex. Dadaab, Kenya, October 29, 2014. (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

A senior Kenyan government official last week said his country was “fatigued by the refugees who have not only caused havoc to the environment but have been fueling insecurity in the country.” Referring to the sprawling Dadaab complex maintained by the United Nations refugee agency, he made the case for relocating the facilities to Somalia, from where the vast majority of its inhabitants hail.

Calls for the closure of Dadaab are not new; they grow particularly loud after attacks by Somali-based extremist group al-Shabaab within Kenyan borders. While there are proven links between al-Shabaab and Dadaab—seemingly reconfirmed in recent days—the situation mirrors the conflation of Syrian refugees entering Europe with the threat of the so-called Islamic State: The vast majority of both migrant populations are fleeing violence, rather than perpetrating it.

Regardless, the task of closing Dadaab would be far more complex and potentially destabilizing than any Kenyan official might suggest. Previously home to half a million people, and still the world’s largest refugee facility with about 330,000 inhabitants, it appears more like a city than the temporary installation that the words “refugee camp” might imply.

Though it remains impossible to comprehend the scale, complexity, and mode of living there without visiting, former Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence does an admirable job of bringing Dadaab to life in his recent book City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. It’s an important work at a time when the issue of forced migration sits at the top of the list of priorities for the UN, regional and non-governmental organizations, and many national governments.

Based on interviews and research conducted over several years’ worth of visits to Dadaab, and augmented by an impressive power of observation, the book strikes a delicate balance between the personal and political. It provides a powerful indictment of the international community’s enduring inability to focus on more than one crisis at a time, and of the propensity for rich countries’ concerns to dominate debates on these matters. While the spillover of the Syrian crisis into Europe attracts justifiable political and media attention, the dire situation in sub-Saharan Africa carries on largely in a vacuum—even if the region was the major source of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean prior to 2015.

This spot focus is not lost on those inhabitants of Dadaab whose stories fill City of Thorns, nor the many “agency people” working in and around them. Rawlence writes that when a 2010-2011 food shortage in Somalia threatened to inundate the camps with thousands of new arrivals, it became common to blame contemporaneous natural disasters in Japan and Haiti for a lack of an international response. On the other hand, when Dadaab does receive attention, it is often for the wrong reason, such as when two female Médecins Sans Frontières workers were abducted from the camp.

Furthermore, the author outlines the myopia at play in failing to connect Dadaab to the root causes of its existence and to drivers of radicalization within its borders. These include Western-backed interventions in Somalia—including Kenya’s recent pursuits of al-Shabaab—and, further back, the colonial legacies of dividing the nomadic Somali community across national borders; here Rawlence shows a keen historical awareness to note that the London venue of a 2012 conference on Somalia also saw the signing of troublesome British treaties relating to the region, in the 1890s.

The author’s great success is to humanize the vexed situation in Dadaab through the stories of nine individuals and others within their near orbits. In doing so, he acknowledges the same empirical truth that informs the work of prominent New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof: readers more readily respond to the plights of one or two identified individuals than they do statistics about nameless masses, no matter the scale of deprivations they might suffer.

Among the faces Rawlence draws from the crowd is Guled, a former child soldier from Mogadishu, who “grew up in the shattered city, playing among the shells of those two ruined helicopters” involved in 1993’s Black Hawk Down incident, which again alludes to a problematic recent history of international involvement in the region. Guled flees to Dadaab to escape the clutches of al-Shabaab, but soon struggles to adapt to life in a place where treasured customs such as shahad, or sharing with strangers in need, have no currency. After encouraging his wife Maryam and mother-in-law to join him, he must then contend with their dissatisfaction. “It’s only the bullets that are the problem back home,” Maryam complains, contrasting this with the heat and dust, lack of family support and economic opportunity, and other impositions of life in the complex.

As the author details, the camps are themselves also invariably characterized by the type of violence their inhabitants are supposedly fleeing, whether it is perpetrated by members of al-Shabaab, petty criminals and vigilantes responding in kind, or other antisocial forces: It is a growing epidemic of rape—affecting as many as one in three women in the camp—that eventually convinces Maryam’s mother to return to Somalia, believing it “better to die in dignity.”

City of Thorns illustrates a particularly acute sense of anomie among those who have come of age in Dadaab. This includes husband and wife Monday and Muna, who live in a sort of purgatory awaiting resettlement, resulting, as Rawlence tells it, in a lack of appreciation for the present: “in such circumstances, people are more inclined to act without consequences, without limits…Hence the temptations to slip into khat and drink, or into ideology.”

Theirs is, however, ultimately one of the more hopeful narratives: They are able to overcome threats of violent retribution against their inter-cultural and -religious coupling—she being a Somali Muslim and he a Sudanese Christian—as well as the frustrations of bureaucracy that see their case for resettlement to Australia needlessly delayed by 17 months.

Otherwise, City of Thorns offers a fairly damning critique of the international system built up around refugees. This includes the UN often being beholden to questionable national interests, including when it provides contracts for new camp constructions to the cronies of corrupt Kenyan officials, and seemingly responds to concerns about radicalization by cutting World Food Programme rations to the camps and supporting the hasty return of many refugees to Somalia.

While not offering any definitive solutions to the many problems that plague Dadaab or the great complexity of the refugee crisis globally, the book wholly succeeds in its mission of humanizing the situation. And, as Rawlence himself alludes to, this could ultimately help to bring some sort of positive future change: “The status quo in Dadaab is dependent upon not recognizing the refugees as humans. Because to do so would be to acknowledge that they have rights. And to recognize those rights would be to occasion a reckoning with history that would be too traumatic.”