A look at global changes in refugee policies through the lens of Dadaab, writes UJ’s Dr Cristiano d’Orsi

Dr Cristiano d’Orsi, Research Fellow and Lecturer at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL) at University of Johannesburg (UJ), recently penned an opinion piece published on The Conversation, 18 June 2020.

Two initiatives passed by the UN in 2016 changed the landscape for policies towards refugees. These were the Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.

The global compact called for an end to confining people in camps. It called for their integration into society by empowering them to contribute to their new communities and secure their own futures. It provided a blueprint for governments, international organisations and other stakeholders to ensure that host communities got the support they needed and that refugees could lead productive lives.

The global compact was not legally binding. Yet it represents the political will and ambition of the international community for strengthened cooperation and solidarity with refugees and affected host countries.

Kenya adopted the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework as one of the pilot countries in 2017. The framework set down commitments to be implemented in situations involving large-scale movements of refugees. It listed a number of actions and best practices in four areas: reception and admission; immediate and ongoing needs; support for host countries; and opportunities for durable solutions.

Kenya also endorsed the global compact, committing itself to:

  • Giving refugees the option of obtaining citizenship or residence through marriage or parentage
  • Strengthening the self-reliance and inclusion of refugees and providing economic opportunities
  • Investing in social and technical infrastructure to improve access to opportunities and services in host communities
  • Integrating refugees and local residents in a pilot settlement and involving refugees in local development planning
  • Promoting school enrolment and increasing refugees’ access to the education system at all levels.

These commitments signalled a shift in the way Kenya had run the camps and opened up the possibility of changing existing policy.

The other major factor that’s driven change over the past four years has been the emergence of donor fatigue. In Kenya, this has been felt acutely. After more than three decades of humanitarian assistance to Somali refugees, a growing number of agencies (including the World Food Programme and Medecins Sans Frontieres) have withdrawn or curbed aid.

All these developments have played out in Kenya and its management of the Dadaab complex. The complex, along with a camp in Kakuma in Kenya and Pugnido, in the Gambella region, are among the oldest settlements in sub-Saharan Africa (and in the world) that are still open.

The Dadaab complex is illustrative of how the changes in refugee policy have worked – and not worked.


The Dadaab complex consists of three camps – Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley. The first was established in 1991, when refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia started to cross the border into Kenya. A second large influx occurred in 2011, when some 130,000 refugees arrived, fleeing drought and famine in southern Somalia.

The camps resemble naturally grown towns and have developed into commercial hubs connecting north-eastern Kenya and southern Somalia. At the end of March this year the complex had a population of 217,511 registered refugees and asylum seekers.

Dadaab has been described as “Kenya’s third biggest city”. Business in the camp and its environs has been booming. It’s estimated that Dadaab’s economy generates about $25 million a year and that the local host community around the camp earns approximately $14 million a year in trade and contracts.

But as Raouf Mazou, at that time UNHCR’s Kenya representative, has said, the camp provides a false sense of normality. Living conditions remain inhospitable. And the life of the refugees is hard.

In 2016 the government announced it was closing Dadaab. The decision was driven mainly by a lack of international support – in terms of funding as well as the failure to resettle many refugees in other countries.

In early 2017, Kenya’s High Court ruled the closure of the camp was unconstitutional. Its targeting of Somali refugees was judged to be an act of group persecution, illegal and discriminatory.

Two years later the issue was back in the headlines when a leaked internal UN document revealed that the Kenyan authorities, citing security concerns, had sent a note to the UNHCR about plans to close Dadaab within six months.

Dadaab remains open, and, for the moment, the idea of closing it has been put aside by the Kenyan authorities.

Whatever the fate of Dadaab, the Kenyan authorities have never explained how they would meet their commitments to the UN’s compact if they closed the camp.

What’s gone wrong

The aim of both the Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework was to bring refugees in from the fringes of society to enable them to benefit from national education, health and employment opportunities. They also aimed to improve conditions in refugees’ countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

But Kenya has not anchored all its international refugee commitments in policy.

The ability of refugees to find employment and become independent is heavily constrained.

Firstly, security concerns are used to justify strict limitations on mobility for refugees.

Secondly, encampment policy, and the inability of refugees to secure work permits, limits their ability to get jobs. Securing employment out of the camps is only possible for the very few who venture out to the cities, although they have to deal with constant police harassment.

Despite widespread engagement in the informal economy, refugees in Kenya remain vulnerable. In a 2018 survey in Dadaab, only a third of respondents reported having access to an income and 70% of households stated that reliance on humanitarian aid was their primary livelihood coping mechanism.

Potential pathways

The humanitarian community that continues to be active in Dadaab has developed a variety of economic activities under the leadership of the UNHCR. These prioritise job and life skills that refugees could use whether they remain in Dadaab, resettle in another area of Kenya, or move back to Somalia.

And for several years two humanitarian agencies have implemented arranged service delivery led by skilled NGO staff who work side by side with trained refugee community workers. There are schools, clinics, food distribution centres and boreholes in the complex – infrastructure far outpaces the reality of other refugee camps in the world.

These initiatives show that there is an opportunity for more independently minded donors with higher risk thresholds to have a significant impact. The Dutch government and EU are already testing longer-term approaches in Dadaab. And there are signs that government actors, at both country and national levels, may be open to a settlement approach as part of a package of options to reduce numbers in Dadaab, rather than close it.

But seeing refugees as an opportunity rather than a burden requires a change in the mindsets of governments and aid agencies.

There are, of course, limiting factors. National encampment policy and limitations on mobility are a source of frustration for refugee entrepreneurs and business owners. Limitations on land access get in the way of attempts to develop agricultural efforts. The prevailing security narrative surrounding Dadaab also dissuades private and national actors from investing further in Dadaab initiatives.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

Dr Cristiano d’Orsi
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