Dadaab: The World’s Biggest Refugee Camp


You may have read or heard the news that the Kenyan Government’s attempt to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in Kenya.

You may have read the Government’s argument that it was a matter of security and that there are Al Shabab terrorists operating in the camp and carrying out attacks from there.

And you may have read that

A directive to shut the Dadaab camp and forcibly repatriate about 260,000 Somali refugees living there was issued last year.

There is more to it behind the news.

For a start, the number is wrong. There are more than half a million Somali refugees in Dadaab, with a smattering of refugees from Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

It’s the world’s largest refugee camp.

Of course the number in Dadaab isn’t static. The original camp has been there since 1991, so children are being born and new refugees are arriving all the time.

A few people find new homes in the UK, or Canada, or Norway, or wherever – but the newly born and the newly arrived mean that the camp is just getting bigger and bigger.

The UN built an extension, and then another and another. And it keeps on growing.

There are even an estimated 40,000 Kenyans there who choose life in the camp to a life free but struggling in the rest of Kenya.

Eight thousand tonnes of food is shipped in by the U.N. each month.

The illegal economy that keeps the camp functioning has an annual turnover of more than $25 million.

There are fixers in the camp who negotiate the price of commodities such as sugar arrriving on the ships that dock in Mogadishu in Somalia, and who pay the bribes along the way until the commodities arrive at Dadaab.

And what may surprise you is that there’s a good argument for saying that the camp isn’t in Kenya at all. Part of the problem is that the borders of Kenya and Somalia were fixed by Britain, the then colonial power, ignoring tribal boundaries.

And Al Shabab terrorists do get into the camp and they do murder people: They murder the Somalis who work for the UN trying keep the camp running.

I learned this when I went with my wife Tamara to hear Ben Rawlence talk about Dadaab. This is another example of my wife’s fine instinct for finding what is worth going to that is rewarding and educational.

Rawlence is not an  armchair visitor. He has been to the camp several times and he writes well about the reality.

Read his book, City of Thorns – Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp and you will soon catch on that he has little time for Governments, visiting celebrities, the civilian security services, the politicians.

He tells a different story – of nine people who live in Dadaab and what life means for them.


  1. Tamara says:

    Informative, interesting article, David. How horrible that such a huge refugee camp has been in existence for so long! Thanks as well for the compliment in the article which I appreciate, and I’m glad we found the author so absorbing and authentic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you David (AND Tamara: )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you – 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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