Refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab Camp Find Life a Daily Struggle

Funds have forced the World Food Programme ( WFP) to reduce the amount of food rations for the refugees by 30 percent. While the agency hopes the cuts are temporary, they could in fact, become greater without significant contributions that will prevent food stocks from running out. Refugees say the ration cuts make their already difficult lives even harder.

Never knowing a home outside the camp

Dadaab refugee camp, situated in the arid northeastern region of Kenya, has been in place for the past 23 years. Currently holding the unenviable title of the world’s biggest refugee camp, Dadaab is home to about 350,000 people. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 60 percent of the population are age 17 years and younger; many of them have never known any other home.

A majority of the refugees in Dadaab are from Somalia, having escaped the prolonged fighting and frequent droughts. The camp itself sits only 100 kilometres from the porous Kenya-Somalia border. Refugees say that living here is becoming harder every day.

Living on the bare minimum

Life in the sprawling camp has not been easy for the most part. Families get by with the bare minimum.  Aid agencies struggle to meet the basic needs of each person – at least 20 litres of water a day, enough food, some form of shelter and basic health services. These services are further stretched thin due to falling levels of funding.

In mid-June, a shortage of funds forced WFP to reduce the amount of food rations for the refugees by 30 percent; while the agency hopes the cuts are temporary, they could in fact become deeper without new contributions to prevent food stocks from running out.

Refugees say the ration cuts make their already difficult lives even harder.

“I have to find other ways of feeding my family.” said Onak Ochwor, a refugee from Ethiopia who lives in a section of Ifo camp known as Gambella, which is named after the region in western Ethiopia.

Onak has been in Dadaab for 11 years. He has a wife and five children. Onak is happy to receive some food but is disappointed at the quantity.

“I cannot rely only on this food because it is not enough,” he adds.

Juma Wilonje is 23-years-old. He came to Dadaab in 2011 fleeing what he calls ‘widespread’ violence in Baraka, South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I came here hoping for a better life than what I’d left behind. I have received some help but it is not enough. Look at the food that I’m getting today. Can this last two weeks?” asked Juma.

Few prospects for income

With few options for earning a living or furthering their education, youth in Dadaab say they are frustrated at their enforced idleness.

“There is very little to do in these camps,” said Onak Ochwor.

In Kenya, refugees are not allowed to work for an income and only a small number can get gainful employment earning a stipend from the agencies delivering aid in the camps.  Families survive by engaging in petty trade within the camps.

Juma Wilonge has found a way to earn a small living, but it comes with serious risks: “I work as a boda-boda (motor bike taxi) driver to earn some money for food and personal needs,” he said. “It is not a safe business, but I have no choice.”

Rising insecurity

For the last several years, insecurity has been worsening in Dadaab refugee camp, driving the quality of life down.  Refugees complain they are plagued by armed groups, including both criminal gangs and Islamic militants.

Mahmoud Mohammed Ali is a Somali of Bantu origin. The soft-spoken 30-year-old father of one has lived in Dadaab for 14 years. Mahmoud left Jamaame, a rich agricultural area in Somalia’s lower Juba region, due to conflict. He came to Dadaab in search of safety, but says he no longer feels safe.

“We are living in a climate of fear, in fact we don’t talk openly nowadays,” he said. “Some years back, life was good; this was before the armed attacks began. They [Kenyan authorities] say it is the refugees, but it is not. It is people from the outside [of the camps],” said Mahmoud.

For many refugees returning home is not an option 

Juma, Onak and Mahmoud represent what is known as ‘minority groups’ within Dadaab’s population, but they are also all young and without much income – a situation shared by most of the camp’s other young residents. The fact that so many young people in the camps are not busy with work or academic studies has been said to contribute to the rise in crime.

Ali Ibrahim Mohammed is one of the refugee leaders in Ifo camp, representing about 250 families. Ali is fully convinced that the refugees are no longer wanted in Dadaab. Although WFP has emphasised that the reduction in food rations is temporary and not aimed at pushing people to leave, he still sees it as a sign: “This tells me that no one is interested in us. They are telling us to go,” he said.

Unfortunately, for many, going back home is still not an option. Many refugees do not believe that it is safe to return. A pilot project aimed at helping Somalis return home on their own will has so far attracted just over 2,000 people.  

Continued support needed

When WFP is distributing full-size rations, it takes 9,300 metric tons of food each month to meet the needs of all the 500,000 refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya, at a monthly cost of US$9.6 million. 

Globally, the number of refugees reached a record 60 million in 2014 as a result of increased conflicts. Despite the competing needs in the world, WFP is working tirelessly to continue providing food assistance to the people in Dadaab, and is grateful to the donors who have supported that work so far this year. WFP is appealing to other donors to urgently consider new funding to avoid a dangerous break in the refugees’ food supply.


Story by Martin Karimi, WFP Kenya