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August 11th, 2010, by Cindy Horst

Cindy Horst

While checking Facebook, I see a message from Yusuf popping up: ‘How are you?’ I type my reply to him ‘Fine. How is life in Hagadera?’ Chats like these have become part of our everyday life, but what is remarkable here is that the person sending the message is ‘stuck’ in one of the world’s largest refugee camps: the Dadaab camps in Northeastern Kenya.

Yusuf sends his message using a mobile phone, which he also uses to call relatives in south-central Somalia to get updates on the security situation there. Having a mobile phone also allows him to receive calls from friends in the US, or ‘flash’ them whenever he needs money. And all of this while he lives in a semi-desert area that currently hosts close to 300,000 refugees in crammed conditions, the large majority of whom is from Somalia.

The humanitarian situation in Somalia over the last few years has increasingly worsened, even beyond conditions in the 1990s. 3.6 million people are in need of aid today, and Somalia hosts 1.2 million internally displaced people. Recent news stories focus on fighting between government forces and Islamist insurgents, on the many piracy incidents along the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden, and on the role of the African Union in Somalia. In European media, there is a further focus on a number of integration-related problems associated with Somali refugees living in Europe. Recently there has also been an increased interest in the recruitment of young Somali refugees in the West – first when Ethiopian forces occupied Somalia and now increasingly as recruited by militant organizations like Al-Shabaab.

While news focuses on Somalia or Somali refugees in Europe or the US, there has been very little interest in the situation of those who find themselves in what we call ‘protracted refugee situations’. Somalia’s most hidden population is stuck in refugee camps like those in Dadaab, which consists of Ifo, Ifo 2, Dagahaley and Hagadera. Many of them, including Yusuf, have been in the camps since 1991. Those who arrived as children, like him, have gone through the educational system there, found themselves a source of income, they’ve married, have children themselves. To some extent, their lives continued and, after the first few years, they have enjoyed relative peace.

Yet at the same time, they are confined in a semi-desert area which is only able to host this many people because of continued international humanitarian presence and support from relatives. Other inhabitants of Dadaab have come much more recently: Over the past two years over 130,000 refugees have fled the fighting in Somalia to arrive in Dadaab. In the first quarter of 2010, the arrival rate has averaged over 4,800 per month. Although there are now plans to build an extension to the camps in order to host a population that doubled in just a few years, living conditions are an increasing concern. Food, health care, education – all basic needs are extremely difficult to meet in Dadaab. But what is worse is that there is no solution in sight for the people living here, as return to Somalia seems as unlikely as ever and resettlement opportunities are increasingly limited. Indeed, the Netherlands is considering deporting rejected Somali asylumseekers to Southcentral Somalia following a recent MOU with the TFG.

When reporting on humanitarian conditions in Somalia, it is important to realize that increasing numbers of people who are currently still in Somalia will be forced to flee and end up in regional refugee camps like those in Dadaab. Stories on Somali refugees in the West miss out an important part of people’s lives without the recognition that these individuals passed through long-term refugee camps or support their relatives and friends still there. Life in Dadaab is to some extent a life put on hold and with the continuous influx of refugees conditions have only worsened. As long as international humanitarian organizations and Somali communities across the world continue supporting people in Dadaab, they are likely to remain Somalia’s hidden population. The question, however, is how long this will continue.

Dr. Cindy Horst is Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. View her expert profile here.

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One Response to “Somalia’s hidden population”
  1. Yussuf Hassan says:

    Thank you,
    Ms Ubah, you have really said all about my stressful but well managed life in Hagadera, the SO CALLED OPENED PRISON!!!!!!

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