Larger than 11 African capital cities: 10 dramatic facts about Dadaab, world's biggest refugee camp


It's about the size of Gaborone or Juba, and would be Kenya's third-largest town, and older than two independent countries in Africa

WHEN Halima Abdi fled the civil war in Somalia with her young daughter, she hoped her stay across the border in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp would be short-lived, IRIN news agency reports.

Twenty-five years on, her granddaughter, Mihiyo, is breastfeeding her fourth child. Three generations of refugees in one family: just like the nearly 350,000 Somalis, they are forced to call this barren, dusty settlement some kind of home.

“Even my parents spent most of their lives here. All we know is Dadaab, although we don’t belong to Kenya,” Mihiyo told IRIN.

Under international law, cross-border refugee camps are supposed to be temporary shelters as governments and agencies work to either integrate the refugees into the host country as permanent residents or naturalized citizens, resettle them into another country, or repatriate them back home.

None of this has worked for Dadaab, as Kenya is nervous about granting citizenship to ethnic Somalis, fearing it would aggravate its own internal rifts in the northeastern province where Dadaab is located.

Furthermore, successful asylum applications are dwindling by the day as most of the traditional receipient countries – Canada, Australia, the US, and Scandinavia – become less generous in accepting refugees.

And going back to Somalia isn’t an option either for most residents of Dadaab, as insecurity is still high in southern Somalia, and their homes and businesses have long been destroyed.

We gathered 10 facts about Dadaab refugee camp, that will probably have you shaking your head in disbelief:

1.     As of December 2015, Dadaab had a population of 347,980, according to a UNHCR count –that’s comparable to the cities of Gaborone, Botswana, and Juba, South Sudan, and bigger than 11 African capital cities including Maseru (Lesotho), Windhoek (Namibia), and Porto Novo (Benin).

2.     If Dadaab was counted as a Kenyan city, it would be the country’s third largest, after Nairobi and Mombasa, and if was an independent country in Africa, it would be larger than Seychelles and Sao Tome & Principe. It is also older than two independent countries in Africa – Eritrea and South Sudan.

3.     The vast majority (331,404 people, or 95.2%) of the people living in Dadaab are of Somali origin, though there are small populations of Ethiopians (14,493; or 4.2%) and South Sudanese (1,309; or 0.4%). Even so, there are a few unlikely nationalities found in the camp too, including 79 Ugandans, 34 Rwandans, 9 Tanzanians, and 8 Yemenis. Digging deeper into the UNHCR data reveals that the Tanzanians are of just one household, made up of two adults and seven children, as are the Yemenis, a household of one adult and seven children.

4.     Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world, the second biggest is Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia, which also hosts mainly Somali refugees, numbering about 210,000. Dadaab was initially established as a temporary haven for some 90,000 refugees fleeing the 1991 clan fighting in Somalia. It is now a sprawling, bustling complex of five camps, boasting makeshift cinemas and soccer leagues, thriving businesses, schools, hospitals, even a graveyard; more city than camp.

5.     The camp’s population surged to nearly 500,000 five years ago, as the Horn of Africa region was in the grip of the worst drought in decades. That year, the total number of asylum claims received across all industrialised countries was still smaller than the population of Dadaab.

6.     A 2010 report (pdf) commissioned by the governments of Norway, Denmark and Kenya found that the camps’ businesses generated an annual turnover of around $25 million. The host community earned some $1.8 million from the sale of livestock alone to refugees.

7.     The UNHCR spends about $400 million on the Dadaab refugee camp every year, a significant portion of which finds its way into the local Kenyan economy. Aid organisations at Dadaab buy most of their supplies locally, providing a ready market for thousands of producers who help tap the donor billions into the Kenyan economy. More than 50 trucks enter Dadaab every week, carrying supplies from Nairobi and the port of Mombasa, according to a report by Kenyan newspaper the Business Daily.

8.     As of December 2015, Dadaab had 154,844 school-aged children (age 5-17), but the camp has just 20 primary schools, and a mere 7 secondary schools. It’s a dismal life and a waste of human potential for refugees, some of whom have spent their whole lives in the camp, and have few skills to show for it.

9.     The Kenyan government, particularly in recent years, has repeatedly issued deadlines to close Dadaab, ostensibly because it was a nurturing ground for terrorists. But under international pressure, the government has backtracked each time. Still, there are no clear links between Dadaab and terrorism in the East African region, if anything, harassing refugees – who already have few skills or opportunities for meaningful work – may lead to resentment, radicalisation or even a more dire security situation.

10.  Dadaab boasts the largest solar-powered borehole in Africa, according to data from the European Commission. The solar water system in Dadaab is equipped with 278 solar panels and provides 16,000 refugees with a daily average of about 280,000 litres of water which they use for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.

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