For the past five years I have been visiting the world’s largest refugee camp, a city made of mud and sticks the size of New Orleans called Dadaab, in northeastern Kenya. The camp was established in 1991 as a temporary refuge for around 90,000 people fleeing Somalia’s civil war. Today it is home to half a million.
At first, I was blown away by the fact of its existence: How could this place still be here? And how could the world allow all these people to stay in this baking hot limbo, unable to work and unable to leave, to spend their whole lives in an open prison? But five years later, after following residents through their daily lives and listening to their hopes and fears, I have came to a very different realization: Dadaab is not an anachronism, or a hangover from a former world order. It is the future.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Dadaab was created as a short-term haven where the international community could house and feed displaced people until a “durable solution” could be found. Under the principles set out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this meant refugees would stay in the camp until one of three things happened: They returned to their country of origin; were integrated into their new host country, in this case, Kenya; or were offered resettlement to a third country, usually in Europe or the United States.
There are nearly 400,000 Somali refugees living in Dadaab for whom none of these outcomes is likely. They are among the 14 million refugees living in what the United Nations calls “protracted situations,” those in exile for more than five years. The global displaced population is now at 60 million, but this appalling number masks another crisis that has been brewing out of the headlines for the past decade: the explosion in protracted refugees.
Rich nations are accepting fewer refugees through the formal United Nations resettlement program. Host nations such as Pakistan, Jordan and Kenya have balked at integrating any of the refugees in their camps. And so, with no prospect of an end to refugee status, many who can afford it are pursuing the illegal journey to Europe. But these are a fraction of the total. For a vast majority, refugee camps are becoming, increasingly, permanent.
No one wants to admit this. Not the countries that must host them, not the United Nations, which must pay for them, and least of all the refugees themselves, who must live there. This makes for strange contradictions.
In Dadaab, the Kenyan government forbids permanent structures, so when the standard-issue United Nations tents turn gray and ragged as they inevitably do after two rainy seasons in the desert, refugees build homes of red mud over frames of thorns. Water still comes from temporary tap stands, and toilets are still holes in the ground. But social life does not stand still. The camp has democratic elections, football leagues, cinemas, hotels, generators providing informal power and a market trading in smuggled goods and surplus United Nations rations that turns over $25 million a year. Kenya, like many host nations, does not allow refugees to work, so the United Nations must continue to ship over 5,000 tons of food each month, mainly rice and beans, to this inhospitable stretch of desert. Currently, though, because of budget constraints, rations in Dadaab have been cut by 30 percent.
Dadaab may be the world’s largest, but there are many other examples of these temporary-but-permanent cities. In Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan, the camps founded in 1979 for Afghan refugees are now a string of 79 permanent slums run by the United Nations and home to nearly a million people. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur have been living in a collection of 12 camps across the border in Chad since 2004, with no end in sight. Similar numbers and situations exist in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Thailand, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere, where people are living, and reproducing, in limbo. The numbers are growing not only because of a world in turmoil, but also because whole generations are growing up in camps.
Gaza is perhaps the best example of this. The eight original refugee camps have morphed into towns that, together, are now one of the most densely populated areas in the world, home to 1.7 million people. Separate from the U.N.H.C.R. and with a different mandate, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East was founded in 1949 for around 750,000 Arab Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948. But with no peace deal or return in sight, the agency looks after their five million descendants at a cost to the international community of over $1 billion a year. The agency was supposed to be an exception, but Gaza now looks like the rule. In Dadaab, the United Nations resettles around 2,000 refugees annually to Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. But the birthrate in the camp of 1,000 a month will always outstrip that effort.
As refugee populations spiral higher, host nations usually move toward ever stricter encampment policies. Kenya is one of the strictest; last year the police rounded up thousands of refugees found outside designated camps and incarcerated them in the national stadium. Pakistan has threatened several times not to renew refugee status for Afghan refugees, and periodically attempts to force people back to Afghanistan. In Jordan, refugees have the right to move and work in theory, but authorities have reportedly issued no new work permits since 2014 and have begun coercive administrative measures to keep them in the camps.
To leave Dadaab, residents require a “movement pass,” just like under apartheid. Acquiring one usually involves a bribe. Thus, members of the third generation that is now beginning life in Dadaab may well spend their whole life in the camp. If they win one of the fiercely contested slots at secondary school, they could gain diplomas and degrees online or through the mail, but when there’s no viable path to a free future elsewhere, education in the closed camp is a cruel trick: There are no jobs except volunteer positions with the aid agencies that run the hospitals, schools and social programs, and these pay a fraction of what Kenyan staff members receive for doing the same job.
One might expect that in such circumstances, talent would curdle into bitterness, but the most striking thing about Dadaab is that the miserable conditions do not seem to have engendered radicalization. People are frustrated, but until now, the isolation of the camp and the United Nations mantras on rights and gender balance have fostered a subdued but tolerant society in which women are more emancipated than their sisters back in Somalia.
This is the ultimate contradiction of camp life: how to locate hope for the future in a desperate situation that appears permanent. People are trying. Life in Dadaab and all the other camps is a daily exercise in manufacturing hope. But for many, the fiction of temporariness no longer holds. And we are seeing the results of that realization washing up on Europe’s beaches.
Separate enclaves are beginning to appear in the rich world, too: slums such as “the Jungle” in Calais, where refugees and migrants wait to try to enter Britain illegally, or the detention centers that are now common in Europe, Australia and the United States where people must wait sometimes for years while their status is determined. In a world centered on nation-states, the full range of human rights is increasingly unavailable to those without citizenship. A whole gray population of second-class citizens has emerged, and their numbers are growing.
The proper and legal response should be to allow refugees and asylum seekers freedom of movement within their host nations and all the rights accorded to other citizens, including the right to travel abroad and seek work legally. But the tide of public opinion in most countries is moving in the opposite direction.
Of course rich nations should take more. But even if Europe and the United States stepped up and admitted much larger numbers than the paltry offers that have been suggested in recent weeks, it would still make only a small dent in the global refugee population.
Until our current wars die down, the world needs to adjust to the new reality of permanent refugee cities in legal limbo. Even if host nations wish to deny citizenship to long-staying refugees, it would make sense to allow the United Nations and refugees themselves to invest in infrastructure to reduce disease, provide employment and make these ramshackle slums more habitable. They could perhaps become autonomous open cities or international zones where those with United Nations documents were permitted to move and trade within the normal international visa regime. If camps were economically viable they might at least offer some pull to remain there. As one man told me as I was nearing the end of my time in Dadaab: “I belong nowhere. My country is the Republic of Refugee.”
Ben Rawlence is the author of the forthcoming book City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.