I mentioned Ben Rawlence’s book City of Thorns previously on this blog, in the context of a presentation I went to at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The book is about the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world, with over 300,000 people living there, and is the third biggest city in Kenya, though many people have never heard of it. Some refugees have lived there for a very long time.
Rawlence covers the stories of nine of its residents. His book provides an excellent description of what life is really like in the camp, and how people make the most of their circumstances. For some, living in Dadaab is better than existing in Somalia, but just about everyone would like to leave.
Al-Shabaab have a presence in the camp, and bombs are a fairly regular occurrence. The police in and around the camp are corrupt. The police and al-Shabaab are heavily involved in sugar smuggling. Soon after the agreement between Kenya and Somalia in 2013 to start the repatriation of refugees the level of violence increased drastically. Rawlence writes “…attacks on incoming trucks along the road to Somalia were a weekly occurrence. Policemen kept getting killed. No one knew the precise details of the sugar smugglers’ conflicts. One theory had it that the cartels were paying off the police and groups within the police were taking sides. Another rumour claimed the slowdown in trade was making the police chief in Dadaab greedy and the cartels were picking off his officers as a bargaining tactic.” When we think of refugee camps we probably don’t expect such a level of violence, but it regularly goes on in Dadaab. It shouldn’t be like that, but no-one seems capable of changing things. Rawlence’s book is revelatory in this respect.