Issue 53 - Article 10

Conflict and deteriorating security in Dadaab

March 20, 2012
Damien Mc Sweeney
University College Cork
Police guard a food distribution in Ifo Camp

mcsweeney table 1The Dadaab refugee complex in north-east Kenya was established in 1991. Originally designed to accommodate 90,000 refugees, the camps now hold over five times their intended capacity, making Dadaab the third-largest population centre in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. The region is remote and harsh, with temperatures of up to 48 degrees Celsius in the dry season and extreme flooding in the rainy season. The main Dadaab complex consists of the ‘older’ Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo refugee camps, with three further sites, Ifo East and Ifo West (combined they are known as Ifo 2) and Kambioos. These sites are being developed to help cope with the influx of over 154,000 people in the past 12 months, bringing the total population to over 463,000. The refugee population is largely Somali (95%), with small numbers of Sudanese, Ugandans, Eritreans and Ethiopians.

Operational difficulties

The UN in Dadaab has two de facto operations running side by side, one serving the long-term refugee population, and an emergency operation to deal with the influx of new arrivals. In addition, the UN has begun to support projects targeted specifically at the host community in order to try to alleviate tensions between them and the refugees. The long-term refugee population could be seen as a developmental intervention, with the camps in need of updated and more permanent infrastructure, including water systems and additional schools, hospitals and police posts. The second, emergency-based operation focuses on providing basic resources and services for new arrivals. Working with its 30 implementing/operational partners, UNHCR is struggling to provide items such as tents, blankets, sleeping mats and plastic sheeting.

Deteriorating security

North-east Kenya has always been very insecure, with special Kenyan government permission needed before any travel is allowed by anyone to Dadaab. The presence of armed bandits and Islamist militias such as Al-Shabaab, as well as periodic outbreaks of clan feuding, means that the threat of violence against humanitarian workers is very real. The UN mission in Dadaab operates under UN phase three security restrictions stipulating travel by convoy and with an armed police escort, no free movement of staff without armed guards in the camps and a curfew for humanitarian workers, who have to be in a secure compound from 6 pm to 6 am.

In the past few months the security situation has deteriorated further. On 13 October 2011 two Spanish aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were kidnapped and their driver shot by Al-Shabaab in broad daylight in Ifo camp. In September a Kenyan driver working for CARE was kidnapped. There have been reports that Al-Shabaab has sold the MSF workers to pirates for $100,000 each, and that they are now being held in the pirate town of Harardhere on the Somali coast. Tristan McConnell, ‘Kenya News: Al Shabaab Sold Doctors Without Borders Hostages to Pirates?’, Global Post, 10 January 2012,  In response to the deterioration in security, the Kenyan military launched Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Protect the Nation), moving its troops into Somalia on 16 October. The Kenyans have seized a number of towns held by Al-Shabaab militants some 100km inside Somalia, and have said that they will advance as far as Kismayo. Al-Shabaab retaliated with grenade attacks in Nairobi on 26 October, which injured 30 people, and bomb attacks on the police and humanitarian convoys in Dadaab. One police officer was killed and three others were seriously injured in a bomb attack while escorting UN officials in Ifo camp in December, and a landmine blast in Hagadera killed another police officer and seriously injured two more. Al-Shabaab have also begun targeting refugee leaders whom they believe are cooperating with UNHCR and the police, with the killing of the chairperson of the Community Peace and Security Team (CPST), a community policing initiative, in Hagadera camp on 29 December. The CPST Chair for Ifo camp was shot and killed on 1 January 2012.

The escalation of attacks by Al-Shabaab has prompted UNHCR and its partners to significantly scale back their operations in the camps. As an indication of the level of insecurity, during a visit in December the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, did not even venture into the camps, instead remaining inside the secure UNHCR compound in Dadaab town. The withdrawal of many humanitarian workers from the camps has had a negative impact on the security and protection of refugees. The Kenyan authorities have imposed a curfew in the camps and have deployed more police, with reports of mass arrests and beatings of refugees during police sweeps for Al-Shabaab fighters.

The ability of Al-Shabaab to operate within the camps and in surrounding areas such as Garissa seems to confirm the fears of many Kenyans, who believe that Dadaab is being used as a base for militants. A recent opinion piece in one of Kenya’s largest newspapers, The Daily Nation, compared Dadaab with the refugee camps set up in Goma in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide: ‘Dadaab presents a huge threat to Kenyan security. Like Goma, the refugee camp is probably crawling with militia. What better way for Al-Shabaab to penetrate Kenya’s borders than to become refugees within our borders?’ R. Warah, ‘Dadaab Refugee Camp Poses a Huge Threat to Kenya’s National Security’, The Daily Nation, 23 October 2011. It is much more likely however that there are a small number of trained fighters operating in the camps supported by a small minority of refugees, while the rest of the population lives in fear of them.

Azania/Jubaland: Kenya’s solution to the problem?

The security concerns associated with Dadaab have led some Kenyan politicians to call for new camps to be set up in Somalia to facilitate aid delivery, and the winding down of the Dadaab operation. These calls, as well as the invasion of Somalia, demonstrate a significant shift within the Kenyan government towards a more hawkish and hard-line position. Internal Security Assistant Minister Orwa Ojodeh believes that the international community must now consider setting up IDP camps inside Somalia near the Kenyan border, and offer services to Somalis there in order to reduce the number of refugees entering Kenya. Echoing his sentiments, Aden Duale, the MP for Garissa, has asserted that ‘The best solution is to build camps in Jubaland. Kenya and Ethiopia can play a role in protecting them’. Human Rights Watch, ‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame’: War Crimes in Somalia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011).  This more hard-line response to the current emergency is believed by many to be part of a coordinated longer-term strategy to push Al-Shabaab from Central and South Somalia and set up an autonomous buffer zone inside the country. W. Ross, ‘Kenya’s Incursion into Somalia Raises the Stakes’, BBC News, 17 October 2011.  Over the past two years Kenya has recruited and trained a large Somali militia, and its original military objective of defeating Al-Shabaab now seems more about establishing a ‘safe zone’ inside Somalia, with Kismayo as its capital.

Technically this safe zone was created in 2011, when Mohamed Abdi Gandhi, the former Defence Minister of Somalia, declared himself president of ‘Azania’. ‘Azania’ is more virtual than real, since much of the area that it is meant occupy is under the control of Al-Shabaab and Gandhi actually lives in Nairobi. However, with the Kenyan military advancing on Kismayo this may change. The creation of even a marginally stable buffer zone against Al-Shabaab could have major implications for the refugees in Dadaab as it would allow Kenyan officials and ministers to argue that refugees should be accommodated in Azania instead of Kenya. This could lead to the closure of most of the Dadaab camps and the relocation of the Somali refugee population to an area that the Kenyan government would assert was safe and conflict-free, thus resolving one of Kenya’s most significant security concerns. Although any forced repatriation of refugees would violate Kenya’s obligations under international law, the absence of any significant enforcement mechanisms or sanctions and the reluctance of the international community to intervene when it comes to Somalia and Dadaab may make this an infringement that Kenya is more than willing to risk, and the international community more than willing to ignore.


There are now over 6,000 grandchildren of the original 1991 refugees who were born in Dadaab. Like many of their parents, these children have never seen Somalia and are virtual prisoners, ‘warehoused’ and aid dependent within the overcrowded camps. It is inconceivable to think that things could get any worse – but they have. Famine, conflict and now invasion have driven an extra 154,000 people to Dadaab within the last 12 months. Now conflict has followed them there, leading to the scaling back of the UN operation, a curfew and security crackdown by the Kenyan authorities and sustained attacks by Al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, the Kenyan military campaign in Somalia may have longer-term objectives that may well include the mass refoulement of Somali refugees from Dadaab. The UN and the international community must monitor this situation closely and insist that Kenya honours its commitments under international law, otherwise the ongoing tragedy of the past 20 years in Dadaab could end with an even bigger tragedy of the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees.

Damien Mc Sweeney lectures in development studies at University College Cork. He was deployed to Dadaab as a member of Irish Aid’s Rapid Response Corps to work with UNHCR in 2010.


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