The dusty streets and patchwork buildings of Ifo, one of the camps that make up Dadaab Refugee Complex in eastern Kenya, don't seem like much of a home. But for Abdullahi Ahmed, now 62, Ifo has long been a home worth fighting for.
Ahmed arrived in Ifo back in 1991, when he fled the civil war in Somalia. His journey to the refugee camp was unspeakable: At one point, he had to leave his dying son under a tree and just keep walking. It's the kind of calculus from which a father never recovers, but Ahmed had to make it: His wife and other children were counting on him to lead them to safety, and Ahmed, himself emaciated and weak, couldn't carry the dying boy anymore.
In Ifo, he started building a new life. A loan from a fellow refugee turned into a vegetable stall, and that vegetable stall turned into a restaurant. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.
Today, Ahmed watches over Ifo like a friendly patriarch: His restaurant has become a community center of sorts, where fellow refugees inhale plates of rice and meat between colorful painted walls. Ifo feels settled, fixed in the landscape. But it wasn't always that way.
In 2006, representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called Ahmed and other community leaders to a meeting. For years, seasonal rains had caused flash floods, terrorizing Ifo's residents. The floods washed away homes, dismantled toilets, and ruined much-needed food and other supplies. On the advice of an engineer from Nairobi, the agency had decided to dismantle the entire settlement and relocate its residents.
Ahmed was aghast. Over the previous decade and a half, Ifo's residents had turned a desperate refugee camp into a city. Children had been born and raised there; small businesses had flourished; temporary huts made of sticks and repurposed tin cans had been refurbished into long-term homes. A second displacement would devastate this already-traumatized community.
Ahmed had lost one home due to war. He wasn't about to leave another one just because some bureaucrats told him he had to.
"I thought, 'This engineer from Nairobi is bogus,'" recalls Ahmed, who smiles broadly from behind a wiry scrub-brush beard. So he spoke up. Ahmed told the agency that the engineer they had hired was wrong. There was a better and cheaper alternative to relocation: a levee to redirect the floodwaters away from Ifo's families. In the months that followed, the UNHCR took Ahmed's advice and built the levee. The camp stayed put; the floods stopped. Ahmed was never paid a consultation fee, but he was right.
In 2017, the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to Kenya's refugee camps by 30 percent due to insufficient funding. In the good old days, the refugees at least got rice. Today, they don't even get that.
Of course he was right. Before the war, he had been one of Somalia's most respected civil engineers.
We are in the midst of the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. According to the UNHCR, the earth currently contains 68.5 million forcibly displaced people. To put that in context, the population of the United Kingdom is 66 million. There are more refugees in the world right now than Brits.
More than 870,000 Somali refugees are in the Horn of Africa and Yemen alone, while another 2.1 million Somalis are internally displaced. Dadaab, the world's third-largest refugee complex, hosts the highest percentage of refugees from Somalia.
First established in 1991, Dadaab has grown over the decades to become a city of 209,000 people. The majority are Somali, but refugees from Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Congo can be found there as well. Life in the camps is grim: Hundreds of thousands of traumatized people, half-starving on too-small rations, live in conditions that Oxfam calls "barely fit for humans." (Dadaab is eerily well-named: The word means "a rocky hard place.")
Taking care of all these people comes with a hefty price tag that no one wants to pay. According to a report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), proper care in 2018 would have cost an estimated $191.1 million; as late as November, only 19 percent of that was funded. In 2017, the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to Kenya's refugee camps by 30 percent due to insufficient money. In the good old days, the refugees at least got rice. Today, they don't even get that.
"The food they give us is not even fit for dogs to eat," says Bishar Ahmed, 35, who came to Dadaab from Kismayu, Somalia, in 1998. "We want to work so we can buy food that is fit for human consumption."
But Kenya has imposed harsh limits on the refugees' ability to work. As we'll see, this doesn't just make life harder for the people in the camps. By hobbling their self-reliance, it forces large numbers of them to depend on the authorities for survival, inflating those enormous costs. According to the World Bank, more than 90 percent of Somali refugees in Kenya are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs.
Third-country resettlement options for Somali refugees are grim and getting worse. Historically, America has been a positive force in global refugee resettlement, taking in tens of thousands each year. In 2016, 90 percent of African refugees who settled somewhere other than their home country or the country to which they initially fled ended up in the United States, according to the IRC. But in January 2017, President Donald Trump slashed the refugee resettlement cap more than in half and issued an executive order severely restricting entry for citizens of half a dozen countries, including Somalia. Now U.S. refugee resettlement is at its lowest point since 1977. Somali refugee resettlement has seen a 97.4 percent decrease from the first three months of 2016, according to State Department data. And as anti-refugee sentiment flares, Europe hasn't done much better: In 2017, E.U. member states took in only 9,451 refugees out of a total of 1,190,000 with resettlement needs, according to IRC.
As Dadaab lingered in a state of limbo for decades with no exit strategy in sight, Kenya began to show signs of asylum fatigue. In 2012, then–President Mwai Kibaki called for refugees in the camps to be "resettled" inside Somalia, saying "Kenya can no longer continue carrying the burden."
Then security concerns made the situation worse. Following brutal attacks at Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015, Kenyan officials found a quarter of a million scapegoats in Dadaab. Claiming that the Somali terror group Al-Shabab had infiltrated the camps, making them a "nursery" for violent extremism, Deputy President William Ruto threatened to close the complex down. Human rights groups condemned the proposal and Ruto backpedaled. But a year later, in May 2016, the controversy was reignited when the Kenyan government announced that it had disbanded its Department for Refugee Affairs as a first step to shuttering Dadaab.
The timing of the announcement was significant: Just two months earlier, the E.U. had brokered a deal with Turkey to send back every Syrian refugee who crossed its borders. The double standard did not go unnoticed in Nairobi.
"In Europe, rich, prosperous, and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War II," Kenyan Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said at the time. "There comes a time when we must think primarily about the security of our people. Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now."
Following a petition from human rights organizations, Kenyan High Court Judge John Mativo ruled that the government's plans to close Dadaab and repatriate its refugees were an unconstitutional "act of…persecution." The disbanded Department for Refugee Affairs was replaced with a new Refugee Affairs Secretariat.
Since then, life in limbo has continued. More than 79,000 people have voluntarily repatriated to Somalia, but many in the camps say they'll never go back. Closing Dadaab would be a logistical and political nightmare—a quarter of a million people won't just disappear. Where would they go? Who would pay for the relocation operation? What if the now three generations of Dadaab refugees simply refused to leave the only home many of them have ever known?
As former Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence put it in City of Thorns (Picador), his 2016 book: "No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent."
Refugees are often seen as a drain on national resources. But that doesn't have to be true. When Abdullahi Ahmed shared his engineering expertise with UNHCR, for example, he saved the global community from paying for an exceedingly expensive relocation. (The agency could not provide an estimate of how much it would have cost to move Ifo, but according to The Nation, a proposal to relocate Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi was projected to run roughly $9 million.) Failing to capitalize on the economic value of refugees isn't just a humanitarian mistake. It's an economic one.
Thirty years ago, Dadaab was a remote outpost where camel and goat herders had to walk 66 miles to the nearest town just to sell their meat and milk. Today, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Kenyan, Danish, and Norwegian governments, the direct and indirect benefits of Dadaab's camps amount to as much as $14 million a year in a region that sorely needs it. That study also found that Dadaab's informal refugee-run markets turn over around $25 million per year—a quarter of all economic activity in northeastern Kenya.
Dadaab's informal refugee-run markets turn over around $25 million per year—a quarter of all economic activity in northeastern Kenya.
"We would rather have the refugees stay around; they are our brothers," says Mahat Moge, 37, a Kenyan who owns a conference venue and restaurant just outside the camps. "And," he adds with a grin, "we can do business with them." Moge buys sugar, milk, and other staples from refugee vendors, since their informal markets operate outside the Kenyan legal framework and therefore don't incur a tax.
In April 2018, the International Finance Corporation released a consumer and market study of Kakuma, a smaller refugee camp on the other side of Kenya. Rather than focus on the camp's humanitarian needs, the study looked at Kakuma "through the lens of a private firm looking to enter a new market." It found a vibrant informal economy, including 14 wholesalers—an economic vitality the camp shares with its host community.
"Kakuma camp and town are a single market in more than just name," the report concludes. "Over the past decades, the two have become socioeconomically interdependent with refugees hiring, trading, and working with town residents and vice versa."
The economic value of refugees isn't unique to that country or even to the continent of Africa. One study, which looked at the economic impact of refugees in Ohio, found that the Refugee Services Collaborative of Cleveland spent an estimated total of $4.8 million on refugee services in 2012—but refugee activity boosted the local economy by an estimated $48 million, created 650 jobs, and generated $2.7 million in state and local tax revenue. In the words of a 2016 report from the Open Political Economy Network, "Investing one euro—or dollar—in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two in economic benefits within five years." The 2017 book Refugee Economies (Oxford University Press) concludes that "far from being an inevitable burden, refugees have the capacity to help themselves and contribute to their host societies—if we let them."
But if the influx of economic value that refugees bring is so clear to researchers, why isn't it more clear to the countries that host them, such as Kenya? If refugees build such vibrant and thriving informal markets, what has stopped them from translating that potential into formal employment and self-reliance?
Although the UNHCR gives Kenya's refugees the essentials of survival—free shelter, free food, free water, free medical care, free education, even free firewood—entrepreneurship is everywhere. Parts of Hagadera, one of Dadaab's camps, are comparable to any other central business district in small-town East Africa, if you ignore the fact that the buildings are made of sticks and sheet metal rather than concrete. (Government policies prohibit the refugees from building permanent structures.) Refugees have opened stores, restaurants, photography studios, internet cafés, and much more. In the words of 28-year-old Ahmed Ali, who tries to work as a mechanic even though roadblocks around the region mean that sometimes months pass without a car to repair, "It is better to work for yourself than sit and wait for aid."
Yet despite all the "free" things the camps' residents receive, the refugees themselves are not free. Two policies—the UNHCR's incentive worker policy and the Kenyan government's encampment policy—waste the vast human potential at places like Dadaab, with negative consequences for refugees and native Kenyans alike.
Abdiaziz Ali, who was born in Mogadishu in the late '80s or early '90s (like many refugees, he isn't certain about his age), was always one of the smart kids. He arrived at Dadaab as a toddler and quickly began to excel academically. When he finished secondary school in 2004, he was accepted to the University of Nairobi. After working for seven years, he finally saved enough to move to the capital city and begin studying for his B.A. in sociology and conflict resolution. At that point, Abdiaziz felt like he was living the dream: With hard work and an education, he would build a future that was brighter than the nightmare his parents had fled.
Then the terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Garissa changed his life. In 2014, the Security Laws Amendment Act placed all refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya under so-called "encampment." Leaving Dadaab and other refugee settlements without a movement pass became nearly impossible. The government raided homes, businesses, and schools to round up refugees who were working or studying outside the camps.
"Kenyan police and security forces are using abusive and discriminatory tactics in the name of national security, targeting entire communities," Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch said at the time. Thousands of people were detained in police stations without charge. Just before what would have been his graduation ceremony, Abdiaziz was sent back to the camp where he grew up.
At Dadaab, Abdiaziz had no good options. With his degree in sociology and conflict resolution, he could have been a valuable asset to one of the NGOs that works in the camp complex. But refugees employed by UNHCR and its partners are allowed only to be "incentive workers." Regardless of their experience or qualifications, incentive workers earn as little as $50 a month, even as Kenyans are paid far more for doing the same jobs. "I will spend weeks writing a report," says one such worker, who makes the equivalent of about $80 a month working full-time for the International Rescue Committee, "and then the Kenyan who emails it out for me gets paid 10 times as much." (The incentive worker asked not to be identified. His job sucks, but in the absence of better options, he doesn't want to lose it.)
"NGOs will only pay Kenyans, because that is the law of the country," Abdiaziz says. "But private companies want to pay whoever is best. The problem is, private companies are not in the camps."
For a while, Abdiaziz considered going back to Somalia, where he'd be free of the Kenyan government's employment limitations. One of his childhood friends, Abbas Siraji, had left Dadaab in 2011 and returned to Mogadishu with dreams of rebuilding their homeland. At first, it went well: He was able to work for fair compensation in Somalia, and he was eventually appointed minister of public works and reconstruction. Then in May 2017, Abdiaziz learned that Siraji had been shot to death in Mogadishu. Abdiaziz had a wife and children. No job was worth that risk.
"Abbas used to tell us to come back home," says Abdiaziz. "But the moment he was killed, I knew I would never go back."
Today, Abdiaziz is placing his bets on the only free space he can access: the internet. He's using the secondhand laptop he bought as a student in Nairobi to get an online degree in computer programming and web design. Someday, he hopes, he can find overseas clients online.
Kenya's parliament is aware of these problems. In 2017, it passed the so-called Refugees Bill, which would have recognized employment and land ownership rights for roughly 500,000 refugees. "It does not make sense to continue as we have been," says former Kenyan Member of Parliament Agostinho Neto, who introduced the legislation. "We have refugees with professional backgrounds who could help support our economy and sustain themselves. Instead, they're incarcerated in the camps." Neto's bill was widely praised as a positive attempt to enable refugee self-reliance, but President Uhuru Kenyatta rejected it, citing a lack of constitutionally required "public participation" in the proposal.
The policies that have held back Abdiaziz hurt native Kenyans too. One refugee—you'll understand why he's anonymous in a moment—needs to buy a new generator for his successful business in Hagadera camp. He has applied for a movement pass to travel to Nairobi to make the purchase, but he knows he won't get it. After he's denied, he'll have one remaining option: pay to have a generator smuggled in from Somalia. The refugee entrepreneur will have to overpay for the machine, and some businessman in Nairobi will lose a sale. The only winners will be the Somali smugglers.
Amid all this uncertainty, there is a reason for hope: Kenya needs workers.
Thanks to recent discoveries of oil, gold, and other natural resources, Kenya's extractive sectors are booming. The industries could explode to as much as 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product by 2030, surpassing even traditional exports such as coffee. But Kenya doesn't have enough skilled labor to meet the booming demand. Already, the shortage has forced the Kenya Pipeline Company to import workers from China and Nigeria.
To address the problem, Tullow Oil Kenya launched a $1 million training program to equip new graduates with the knowledge they need to work in the oil and gas sector. In addition to geologists and engineers, there's a demand for people with skills in information technology, equipment repair, and welding.
"I feel like we are in an open prison," one 20-year-old welder in Ifo tells me. "Our skills are needed, but we can't use them." He has no clients, but he grabs his tools anyway, eager to show off the trade he learned from his cousin. Like the engineer who saved Ifo from the floodwaters, like millions of refugees around the world, the welder could contribute to his adopted country's growing economy. But instead he waits, stuck in a rocky hard place, for clients who never appear.
"My name is Issaq Ahmed," he says, ripe with potential. "And I am a welder." At least he could be—if he were free to work.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "'It Is Better To Work for Yourself Than Sit and Wait for Aid'".