Ideas

Ideas | Tonny Onyulo

The largest temporary city in the world

Tonny Onyulo for the boston globe

Amina Mohammed stands with some of her children at Dadaab. She arrived there in 1991 with her husband from Somalia when the civil war that ousted Somali President Siad Barre broke out.

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya

Dadaab is Kenya’s third largest city, a vibrant place bustling with life and entrepreneurial spirit. It is also the world’s largest refugee camp, and the Kenyan government is increasingly keen on making it disappear.

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Closure of the camp would be devastating not only for the 350,000 Somali refugees living there, but also for the local economy. The Kenyan government says shuttering the camp is essential to counter terrorism from the Al Shabab militant group, which it accuses of using Dadaab as a base to recruit and plan deadly attacks. The threatened closure has drawn worldwide condemnation.

Meanwhile, amid Dadaab’s desert sprawl of makeshift housing, business is booming. Refugees own Internet cafes, pharmacies, auto repair shops, and bus depots. There are cinemas and soccer fields. Dadaab’s Hagadera market is the biggest in Kenya’s northeastern region. Most stalls are refugee-run, offering everything from cellphones and personal electronics to clothes and goat meat.

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Repatriating the refugees will suck the life out of the market with dire consequences for business in the region of northern Kenya, near the Somali border. “Dadaab is a commercial hub,” Abdullahi Mohamed told me. He’s a Somali taxi driver who fled clan warfare in 1991.

The World Bank estimates Dadaab injects $14 million into the Kenyan economy annually. Its shopping centers, taxi services, and lodges have created an economic ecosystem vital for local trade and employment. Some estimates suggest the overall impact of a closure on the regional economy could be as high as $98 million.

Bashir Abdikarir, a member of one of Dadaab’s business associations at Ifo camp, one of five that make up Dadaab, told me: “Most businesses here are run by refugees. . . . The camp provides services and a ready market for residents and a huge tax return to the Kenyan government. We pay more tax than locals.”

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Local Kenyans say they will also feel the impact: “I have been depending on this camp to earn a living,” Dhublawe Ibrahim, a father of four and a Kenyan taxi driver who works in Dadaab, told me.

Education will also suffer if the camp is closed, a point emphasized by Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, who spent her 19th birthday in Dadaab this month. “I am here to speak for my unheard sisters of Somalia striving for education every day,” she said. “Closing the camp will affect the education of these young refugees. The government should reconsider.”

The more than 100 schools in Dadaab are mostly run by the United Nations, offering free education to the refugees and Kenyan students. Local children flock to camp classes, which have filled a void left by the Kenyan government in the remote border region.

The camp’s presence has similarly boosted health care, social services, and transport networks in the region, pulling in international aid and professionals from around Kenya and beyond. Commercial activities in and around the camp generate significant tax revenue.

If Dadaab were an independent country in Africa, it would be larger than the Seychelles, Sao Tome, and Principe — and its population would top 11 African capitals.

Still the government argues the security threat outweighs all the economic and humanitarian concerns. It claims Al Shabab used the camp to prepare terrorist outrages like the Garissa University College attack, where gunmen killed almost 150 people last year, or the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall that killed 67 in 2013.

“The government has decided that hosting of refugees has to come to an end,” Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Nkaisserry, declared recently. “The government acknowledges that this decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees, but Kenya will no longer be hosting them.”

While recognizing that Al Shabab infiltration has created a presence in Dadaab, security experts say closing the camp would not eliminate the group’s ability to carry out such attacks.

Many hope the government is bluffing, using the threat to win more international funding or increased assistance in its fight against Al Shabab. After all, it has threatened to shut Dadaab in the past but backed down, in part because international donors coughed up more money.

This time, however, the signs are ominous: The government has set a timeline, allocated a budget for the shutdown, and disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs, disrupting the lives of refugees and hindering aid agency work.

If the Kenyan government is using the threat of closure for international leverage, it sets a dangerous precedent by using refugees as bargaining chips.

Kenya does have legitimate security concerns that should be taken into account. But domestic and international pressure are needed to persuade the government in Nairobi to avoid a closure that would be disastrous for the refugees, destabilizing for the region, and damaging to Kenya itself.

Tonny Onyulo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.
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