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Dadaab Refugee Camp: My visit (2009 update)

by whataboutbob Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 05:33:10 AM EST

Updated information: In August of 2008, I was offered an opportunity by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) - Refugee Sports Program, to go on a mission to visit the refugee camps of Dadaab, Kenya. UNHCR is mandated to supply shelter and food to people fleeing their home countries due to conflicts or disasters, and therefore financial support for sports and education programs for children and youth comes only after these basic life necessities are provided. Consequently, there is now a campaign to fund organized sports/play, education and vocational training programs independently, so that children and youth in refugee camp settings will be guaranteed sports and education activities, no matter what the latest crisis that UNHCR must respond to (to learn more, go to: www.Ninemillion.org). More below

Brought across with a slight edit by afew

The purpose of my mission was to meet with students, teachers, parents and aid organization practitioners, in order to start planning research projects that evaluate the benefits that children and youth in these camps can gain from involvement in integrated sports, play, education and training programs. We are particularly interested in learning about how healthy child development can be supported for those who live in the ongoing adversity and stress of a refugee camp setting, with a special focus on learning more about children's resilience processes, and how these resilience processes are enhanced by involvement in sports and education (resilience being the capacity of a person adapt to, overcome and develop competencies in the face of severe adversity).

The Dadaab refugee camps are situated in a harsh desert setting of northeast Kenya, just south of the equator and about 75 kilometers from the Somalia border, where temperatures can get up to 40 degrees centigrade in the summer. Currently (note: this was written in Sept 2008), there reside over 216,000 total refugees in 3 camps (Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley), of which approximately 85,000 are children and youth under the age of 18 and approximately another 30,00+ between the ages of 18 and 25 (so more than 57% of the camp is under the age of 25!). And each month an average of 4000 new refugees cross the borders of Somalia and Sudan to seek refuge in these camps (97% of the people in these camps have specifically fled the violence and political instability in Somalia).

Free basic primary education is offered to all children, but there are only 18 primary schools and 3 secondary schools for 85,000 children and youth - not nearly enough to meet the needs of those who desire further education. Funding is desperately needed for more secondary schools, more teachers and coaches (and ongoing teacher training), organized sports and play programs, vocational training programs, and scholarship opportunities for those youth who do succeed in school and want to advance further. Additionally, the traditional nature of the majority Somali culture normally discourages the participation of girls in sports, education, and training activities - so UNHCR is concentrating a lot of effort to improve educational, vocational and sports opportunities for girls throughout the Dadaab camps.

So in this total context, my visit to Dadaab was a real eye-opener. Movement by all aid organizations between the camps must always be accompanied by police escorts. The people here live and work in very basic, crowded circumstances, and are not allowed by the Kenyan government to leave these camps, unless to return to their home country, or to be resettled to a new home in a third country. Consequently, camp life tends to be quite frustrating, with many wondering what their future holds for them - a particular challenge when trying to motivate children and youth to keep pursuing education and vocational training (and keeping them out of trouble). Offering organized sports, education, and training programs offers important structure to the lives of children and youth in Dadaab. UNHCR has been working hard to improve conditions by inviting more international organizations in to develop more services, but this all takes time and money, so data about program effectiveness could be helpful.

Despite these hardships, challenges and frustrations, almost everyone I met in 3 days of visits with parents, teachers, and students were welcoming, respectful, and most impressively, are very motivated to keep working towards improving the conditions and opportunities for their children and youth. Sure, there is skepticism and frustration, and it is not easy for them to continually meet with a steady stream of visitors that often does not show in any tangible gains or results in the refugee`s situation. However, they remain hopeful and forward looking, and I found it particularly admirable that in each meeting there was a clear statement of needs made, and at the same time a sincere interest in the purpose of my visit. I was also impressed by the fact that they see the importance of integrating sports and arts into the education context, both for a more well-rounded education, but also because these activities will help draw more children and youth into school participation.

And even within this stressful, often unstable social milieu, there are some amazing success stories. For example, there is a group of girls who decided to develop a sports program for other girls (despite resistance from their community), and this has become so successful that they have created their own group "Girls United", which recently has received funding from an individual to build a computer training center and supply it with  20 computers. I was able to meet with this group and hear of their plans to expand their programs and business, with goals of getting more girls involved. A second example is the Parent-Teachers Association of the Hagadera Camp. This group of parents and teachers have been asking for more funding, in order to expand their secondary education capacities via more buildings and more teachers, and they were challenged by a UNHCR community service person not to just sit and wait for UNHCR funding, but to consider how they might raise their own money to do this. They took this challenge, and between them have raised enough money to employ a new secondary school teacher!  And now, the PTAs in the other two camps have heard about this, and have taken it as a challenge to do the same thing! For very poor people to nonetheless raise their own money from meager savings, so their kids have more opportunities, is truly impressive!!

This is a photo of this day's group of refugees that have just arrived from Somalia, waiting for an opportunity to be interviewed and officially recognized as refugees, so they can get accees to services (ie, daily food rations, sticks & tarps for a shelter, and a plot of land).

In closing, I make this appeal to my readers: I seek your support (either for funds or for your ideas about where I could seek funds) to help get our research started, with the goal to support, identify, and ultimately improve the quality and quantity of organized sports/play, education, and vocational training programs for youth in the Dadaab refugee camps. It is their future you will be helping!

Update July 2009: A year after my visit to Dadaab, the number of refugees fleeing from the conflict in Somalia has how swollen the population of the camps to over 285,000 people!! And 57% of this number is youth and children under the age of 25! Unfortunately, even though both myself and UNHCR have been actively looking for funding to support these children and youth sport, education and training programs, we have so far had no luck. As it is, UNHCR is making an emergency request for 92 million dollars to meet their emergency food and shelter needs.

The whole visit was incredibly powerful and compelling for me, but what really hit home was what I tried to capture with the last photo: a large group of people waiting at the gate of the UNHCR refugee registration center, where once they are identified and registered, are eligible for a little plot of land, tarps and sticks for a shelter, and a UN refugee card that enables them to access 2,500 calories of food a day, per person in their family. And each day, more people cross the borders of Somalia and Sudan, then walk across 75km of desert to get here. So it was happening right in front of my eyes...very powerful image...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 06:14:02 AM EST
Bob, I wonder if you picked a 'bad' timing for posting this diary, with many of the regulars on their way to Paris. :-)
by Fran on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 07:17:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Never a bad time.  Great diary.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 07:30:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh well, I can refer people to it!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 07:35:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fantastic diary Bob, thanks.  It must be a hard hitting experience to actually see this.  We see the words referring to thousands of refugees fleeing violence, so often. It becomes words without much meaning to us. So to be there and see the volume of people, to gain insight into their experiences is incredible. Thanks for sharing it.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 07:58:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I now work with refugees at the other end of the line, as I work in Australia's dept. Immigration as a Community Liaison Officer. Australia takes the 3rd highest number of refugees each year (about 13,000 all up), and as you can imagine in the last few years a considerable proportion (50% for sometime) have come from refugee camps servicing the Sudan, Ethiopia & Eritrea, Sierre-Leone and Liberia. Oh, and Congo. My state is small and receives about 400-500 of the annual intake each year, and I can tell you that the fairly sudden appearance of black Africans in this state, which is very homogeonously white, has had quite an impact.

Settling refugees, especially from the African continent where in general the camps are not particularly safe or well -serviced & nearly all the people we receive have been traumatised, including torture, is no easy thing. It is very hard on the individuals, and a complex task in the society where they are being settled.

One thing I know from this is that we often get African refugees in particular who have been 10+ years in refugee camps, and have children who know no other life. These kids in particular, while they more quickly grasp the new local culture than their parents, also have real difficulties in our education system and with integration because their life in the camps has been so divorced from a normal routine & normal societal rules. So anything you can do to increase their education, to help them have structure in their life, is vital.

For eg, I work quite a bit here with local sporting organisations to help the refugee kids get involved. We've had incidents like a whole team of African soccer players being banned from the local competition because they assaulted the umpire (!) - basically because they aren't used to organised structures for play, and of course they are under enormous stress, culture shock etc. in so many ways, that it came out on the field. This is being fixed, but gives you an idea.

best of luck to you. If I have any bright ideas, I'll share.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Thu Sep 18th, 2008 at 07:39:56 PM EST
Thank you for your note - and this is VERY interesting for me to read, hearing what you do on the other side of the refugee/immigration spectrum - so really appreciate your views and perspectives. Your thoughts about the need for more structure BEFORE the refugee migrates is particularly important, I think, and so I will keep that in mind as I move forward (and I certainly hope I am fortunate enough to do this work!!). A question: do you know if the Australian government has a humanitarian/development agency that might fund sports & education in Africa?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Sep 21st, 2008 at 06:31:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're welcome - one thing I'm loving about my new job is the even greater impetus it gives to network internationally -so let's stay in touch.

Apologies, this is a slightly rambling response, and double apologies if I talk at cross-purposes to what you're actually doing with UNHCR. I appreciate it's a complicated world!

My initial thought in answer to your question is AUSAID - basically our government international aid and development arm. The Australian Government works closely with the UNHCR to determine where we will take our refugee intake from, and so on, so if you are doing this work under the auspices of the UNHCR, I would hope they would be able to advise of the formal channels for liaising with Australia as well. My Dept. - Dept. of Immigration and Citizenship obviously has a strong role from the "organisation of intake" perspective with UNHCR, and we also work with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in terms of services and support in the camps. But my (limited - new job!) understanding is that our interaction outside of our broad aid commitments is largely confined to looking at the services provided by UNHCR / IOM for processing refugees for potential resettlement in places like Australia.

I think though because the UNHCR organises the daily running of the camps in general, individual countries such as ours have varying influence and therefore interest in throwing resources at such things. What and how Australia provides aid for refugee camps I know little about at this stage - but if I had to take a guess, I'd assume we pay our funds to the UNHCR and entrust them with it's appropriate distribution.

For eg, your point about education and vocational education opportunities for the young people in camps. When we receive refugees here, it of course takes significant resources to provide them with english language training, and try and get them into training and employment opportunities. Social inclusion issues are also huge for the particularly teenagers who have known no other life than refugee camps. It would certainly be helpful for receiving countries of refugees if the latter had better educational opportunities, and might potentially save money at the other end.

So if I humbly step into the shoes of the UNHCR for the moment, I would be researching to see whether there is a strong, pragmatic  cost:benefit argument to be made for nations that support the UNHCR contributing to camp educational programs, because if you can show that this would save costs for countries taking significant refugee numbers to settle permanently, you could make a powerful argument. Another eg - Australia has a serious skilled worker shortage; yet refugees aren't regarded as part of the 'solution' to this, so we have a vast 'skilled migrant' intake of over 100,000/year. Yet it seems to me in a climate change world where the refugee crisis is only going to grow, that we should be looking to make refugees part of that solution. I don't think this area has been adequately explored at all.

In terms of more short-term opportunities,  I wonder actually if you might have more luck approaching major sporting organisations, either in Australia as a destination country, or internationally. From an Australian perspective, it's in the interests of our national basketball, soccer (football) and Australian Rules football (AFL) to provide sport & rec opportunities, because the amount of talent they could get from such initiatives is quite high. For eg, I'd say that half of Australia's basketball team will be from the Sudan in a few years.

So I guess I mean - don't forget the 'enlightened self interest' angle. And to be fair to the sporting organisations in my country, many of them are quite extensively involved in charitable work. It's a thought.

Hope this is remotely helpful!

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Sun Sep 21st, 2008 at 08:39:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice to hear from you again, myriad, and I think you make a really strong point there about the cost:benefit aspect of supporting education in the refugee camps. It is surely more effective to offer educational possibilities in the camps than to have to try to win back the time some years later.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Sep 22nd, 2008 at 07:06:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Myriad - another great comment - and excellent feedback too, which I am going to pass on to UNHCR. And thank you for the leads in Australia - which I will check out. Good luck with your work too!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Tue Sep 23rd, 2008 at 05:32:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I meant to say -

I'm sure you probably know this, but for the benefit of other readers, and to build on my point of cost:benefit analysis:

When people are externally displaced as refugees (ie have to flee their country), there are three options preferred to assist them, in the following order

The first, best option it to be able to create conditions that make it safe for the people to return home. Obviously, this is rarely a quick thing to come about, which is one of the reasons people end up so long in refugee camps. But from everyone's point of view, the best thing is to return the people to their home, to return that social asset to the country, etc.

The second next preferred option if the first is not possible it to settle refugees in neighboring countries. The rationale for this is it minimises cultural differences, acknowledges the connectivity of geography, demography and at the family level between countries, and also allows for the possibility of 'easy' eventual return to country of origin if possible. This is what happens to the bulk of refugees - just look at the numbers of Iraqis in Syria, for example. Of course in Africa, as we have seen over the decades, while the capacity of countries there to absorb refugees from neighboring crises is in many ways astonishing; the number of countries in strife, and the conflict created in countries by large numbers of refugees (look at South Africa at the moment) and so forth means there are limits to this solution also.

The third, least preferred option is to settle refugees in a completely other, usually developed, nation, that is willing to take them. This is where countries like my own come in. Note that there is a big difference between asylum seekers  - people who male their own, desperate way to another country and seek asylum - and those refugees settled from camps directly in developed nations via the UNHCR. In a nutshell, Europe receives far more asylum seekers and takes very few refugees; Australia does the opposite (we're hard to reach and you might remember the draconian, inhumane laws of our previous government, currently being slowly undone); and the USA does a mixture of both.

so after all that, back to the cost:benefit thing. It simply strikes me that developed nations do provide significant aid for refugee camps and 'durable solutions' (1-3) above. Whether the displaced people end up back home, in a neighboring country or in a developed nation, it's in our interests for them to be able to receive a good education, be capable of integrating rapidly into their society, and contribute effectively. Whether it's in further aid to help a war-torn nation back on its feet, including accepting its people back; or he;ping neighboring countries absorb the displaced people and have them contribute successfully; or people settling in the developed world who also want to contribute -the foundation of all of these things is safety and education.

It's surely got to be more cost effective to help them continue to develop while displaced, rather than putting their lives on hold for as much as 20 years.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Tue Sep 23rd, 2008 at 07:48:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you, Bob, for this essential work!  I´ll keep it in mind.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 06:58:07 PM EST

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