Dadaab: The world’s biggest refugee camp

Foreign nationals in Kenya are trapped in Dadaab camp amid a security crackdown that has rounded up thousands of people.

New arrivals to Dadaab aren't allowed to move about freely until they've been registered [Ahmed Farah/Al Jazeera]

Dadaab, Kenya – A young, panic-stricken woman sits under a tree, telling anyone who will listen about her plight.

“They forced me to leave my children behind,” said Ifrah Hassan, a 29-year-old mother of three. A crowd of dozens, mostly men, has gathered around her to listen.

This is Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, located in an arid portion of eastern Kenya near the Somali border.

Kenyan police arrested Hassan at her apartment in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district on April 15. She was sent to Dadaab along with 78 other people following a government crackdown on foreign nationals. “I’m Ethiopian. I have identification papers. They arrested me and took me to Pangani police station, then took me to Kasarani stadium [in Nairobi] before they brought me here,” she told Al Jazeera.

Hassan spends her days in a UN transit centre within Dadaab waiting for her phone to ring. She can’t call them because she has no credit on her phone, so her neighbours in Nairobi lend her eldest child a phone to call her. The last time she heard from them was five days ago, and the call only lasted for three minutes. 

After explosions and shootings in Nairobi and Mombasa that left more than a dozen people dead, the Kenyan government launched a security sweep in April that has so far rounded up more than 4,000 foreign nationals, mainly from the Somali-inhabited Eastleigh district of the capital. The government has blamed immigrants who entered the country illegally for the insecurity, accusing them of sheltering members of al-Shabab, the Somali rebel group.

In April, Kenya deported more than 200 refugees to war-torn Somalia, and plans on sending the hundreds of people it has detained in Nairobi to the Dadaab or Kakuma refugee camps.

Angry and hungry

Not far from where Hassan sits, about a dozen young men stand next to a barbed-wire fence, looking towards the sandy road in front of the transit centre.

The men, who like Hassan are from Ethiopia, shout at passers-by, asking them to help buy food from restaurants in the camp. But the men speak only Amharic – and almost all the refugees in the camp speak Somali. Their attempt to ask for assistance is lost in translation.

Most of those sent by Kenyan security forces to Dadaab are Somalis [Ahmed Farah/Al Jazeera]

Unlike the more than 300,000 other refugees in Dadaab, who are allowed to move freely within the camp’s perimeter, these new arrivals are not allowed to leave the guarded compound until they have been registered and given ration cards.

It’s now 4pm, and the new arrivals haven’t eaten since the night before. They complain about their situation to anyone entering the compound. 

Earlier that morning, an attempted car-jacking of a UN vehicle and the wounding of a UN security officer by unknown gunmen near the transit centre halted the registration process before it even began, forcing UN staff to retreat to their base.

Of the 79 refugees and asylum seekers brought to Dadaab from Nairobi, 31 are still in the transit centre. The rest, mostly Somalis, have joined relatives and friends in the overcrowded camp.

Those who remained have been in the centre for five days and are still waiting to be registered. “No one is telling us anything. They put us here and haven’t given us ration cards. We have it worse than the camp’s refugees,” Said Abdi Mohamed told Al Jazeera. “We just want to be like the other refugees.”

Just before the crackdown began in Eastleigh, Mohamed sent his two wives and some of his children back to Somalia out of fear they could be harmed by Kenyan security forces. He said when the police arrested him, “they just didn’t arrest us. They also slapped and kicked us.”

Police told him to leave his 10-year-old son behind in Nairobi, where he goes to school. Although Mohamed wants to be reunited with his son, he also wants him to continue his education.

‘This place is not safe’

Sitting near the entrance of the compound on a wooden bench, Celestine Frank Joko, a citizen of Cameroon, eats boiled rice and drinks water.

Joko, a trader in Nairobi, was arrested on his way home to his daughter and girlfriend. Still in shock from the shooting incident earlier in the day, he said: “This place is not safe. They were shooting in front of our gate earlier. In Cameroon we don’t have war. I have my Cameroon papers. I just want to return to my daughter, girlfriend and business in Nairobi.”

Rights group slams Kenyan government for treatment of refugees

The condition of the new arrivals from Nairobi has concerned refugees living in Dadaab, many of whom have rallied to help them. 

“We donated clothes to our new brothers and sisters. Camp residents visit them and talk to them. They have lost everything and need people they can talk to,” said Hussein Yussuf Farah, chairman of Hagadera camp, one of several that make up Dadaab. “We are doing our best, but the world needs to help them. We ourselves are refugees and have nothing.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is aware of the new arrivals’ plight. “We are compiling a list and we will give that list to [the World Food Programme]. After that they will be issued with food like other refugees in the camp,” Leonard Zulu, UNHCR’s senior protection coordinator in Dadaab, told Al Jazeera.

When asked why the new arrivals had not been given food, Zulu replied: “We give them hot meals. We had a serious security incident which impacted our daily operation.” The UNHCR also said it was “concerned about families who have left family members in Nairobi and are working on re-uniting them”.

Kenya’s Department for Refugee Affairs, meanwhile, denies that families have been separated by the operation. “We have asked them [refugees] to come forward with information about missing family members so we can reunite them. Our offices are open. No one has come forward with such information, as of yet,” Haron Komen, its acting commissioner, told Al Jazeera.

But with the Kenyan government insisting the crackdown will continue, those in Dadaab’s transit centre say no more refugees should be sent to the camps.

“This is worse than life in a zoo,” said Joko, the Cameroonian trader. “At least animals in a zoo have security and food.”

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera