Kenya's out-of-control camp of Somali refugees at Dadaab reflects a problem that is stretching the world’s capacity to cope.
The African nation established the camp near the Kenya-Somalia border in 1991, to try to deal with a flow of refugees in the wake of the collapse of Somalia’s government and an uptick in fighting there. The refugees’ displacement had both economic and political elements. The fighting, and corresponding economic collapse, in Somalia have continued intermittently.
The population of Dadaab rose from its original, anticipated 90,000 to an estimated 500,000. The United Nations says it has no idea how many residents the camp has now.
The terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in September, killing 67 people, were Somalis living in Kenya. Some of the refugee families in the camp are now in their third generation.
Some Somalis still claim refugee status from a war that ended in 1978. They refuse to return to Somalia, even to be counted by an official census, because the result might be a cut in benefits.
Apart from the Somalis, there are also thousands of Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, displaced Sudanese in Darfur, and refugees who are remnants of other wars around the globe, including the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Such refugees place a heavy burden on the countries that accept them. The international community pays a high financial cost to support them in their places of refuge. Many refugees are reluctant to return to their countries of origin even after things have calmed down, particularly if they fled for economic reasons.
When is a refugee just an illegal immigrant? Rules define refugee status, but situations such as Kenya’s now require a careful review of those rules.