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The World's Largest Refugee Camp Looks Like A Slum/Star Wars Mashup

Somalis living in the Dadaab camp in Kenya gather to watch the arrival of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees last May.
Tony Karumba
AFP/Getty Images
Somalis living in the Dadaab camp in Kenya gather to watch the arrival of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees last May.

In the middle of the desert in Kenya, there's a place with a population the size of Minneapolis, called Dadaab.

It's no ordinary city. This is the largest refugee camp in the world, home to nearly half a million people. Most came from Somalia, escaping the civil war that began in the early 1990s.

Ben Rawlence spent years working in the camp — first with Human Rights Watch, then as a journalist. He just published a book called City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp.

"From the air, I suppose, it looks like Atlanta," Rawlence said of Dadaad, in a conversation with NPR's Ari Shapiro. "It's all these grids, and it's got five different towns, all of which orbit the original settlement of Dadaab. And it's all made of mud and sticks and plastic, so it looks, in a way, like some kind of giant slum, a bit like the planet of Tatooine in Star Wars."

Rawlence joined Shapiro for a discussion about his experiences and the book.

So, people should envision something between Atlanta and Tatooine from Star Wars?

Yeah. That pretty much gets it.

Why did this camp come to exist in the first place? How did this enormous quasi-city refugee camp come to be established in the deserts of Kenya?

Well, it started off quite small. American listeners will be familiar with Black Hawk Down, when the U.S. tried to intervene in the civil war in Somalia in 1993. Of course, they failed and withdrew, and Somalia's been pretty much at civil war ever since. So, initially, there [were] around 90,000 people who fled south into Kenya and established the camps. And, over time, the camp population has grown, and more and more refugees have come from Somalia, pushed out by successive waves of conflict.

There's a line in the opening pages of your book that really struck me. You write: "Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile, and yet, we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human." Why do you think that is?

I think it's because these people are far away, and we don't see them. We don't hear their stories. What we see is these images of refugee camps, of large hordes of people suffering or drowning in boats. And what I've tried to do with this book is to give you the ground-eye view of what it's like through the eyes of these people. So I've hoped that the reader will fall in love with these characters and, possibly, they'll also have their heart broken, perhaps, because when you see it from their eyes, you have a much deeper feeling for the situation.

If I were to choose a neighborhood at random in this camp and just walk down one of these dirt roads, what would I see?

The camp is arranged in blocks, and each block is divided into 10 or 20 houses. And those houses are basically a hut in a sandy compound. The sand is red, and the fence around the compound is made of thorns, because that's the only real building material in the desert. And all around the camp, for around 100 kilometers, all the thorn trees have been cut down because people have used them for construction. And then, in the middle of each camp is a sort of informal market.

The role of Kenya is very complicated here — providing this camp for hundreds of thousands of refugees while, at the same time, effectively trying to get rid of them and close the camp down.

Kenya's in a difficult position because, of course, legally, it's obliged to offer asylum to people, as every country is under international law. But at the same time, there's real pressures and tensions, incorporating such a large number of people into its population. So it has this encampment policy. It wants the refugees to stay in the camp. And they've become a very convenient scapegoat, because every time there's an al-Shabab attack in Kenya, the government's very quick to point the finger at Dadaab even though there's no demonstrated link between terrorism and the refugees. Nonetheless, the refugees have become a scapegoat, and that's why we've seen Kenya repeatedly call to try and close the camp.

It's funny, because you write in the introduction to the book that as far as the U.S. government is concerned, if the people at the camp are not a threat, then it's fine to ignore them. By ignoring them, they may someday well become a threat.

Yeah. It's very complicated. The relationship between extremism and marginalization is really very understudied. Nobody really knows what tips people over the edge into extremism. And what you see from the lives of the people in the book is how minor the radicalization questions are to their life. Their daily lives have nothing to do with terrorism at all.

Starvation is the main factor in their lives.

Yes, getting enough to eat. ... Getting enough to eat is the main thing.

What is the relationship like between U.N. workers who keep this camp running and the people living there?

The U.N. has a very uneasy relationship [with the refugees]. I mean, on the one hand, people are very grateful. All of their needs are being met by the U.N. But at the same time, it's very complicated because the Kenyan government doesn't allow these people to work. But what the U.N. has negotiated is this internship program so refugees can volunteer. One of the girls in the book volunteers as a young teacher. And they're paid $70 or $80 a month as a stipend, but they're being asked to work alongside Kenyan teachers who are paid $1,000. So there's all sorts of tensions between the refugees, the Kenyan workers and also the U.N. staff.

There are hundreds of thousands of people at this camp with very little hope of a future. Is that why, in just the last year or two, we have seen so many people from North Africa try to make the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean to reach Europe?

Definitely. This global refugee crisis is partly about the protracted refugees, so the people like those living in the camp who've been displaced for such a long time. And they're finding out that these places are not temporary havens, a gateway to a life somewhere else. These places are actually a destination in themselves, and they're becoming these kind of very unfair, poorly serviced cities. And people are leaving them. And I think certainly for the Syrians, they're looking at the example of Dadaab and they're realizing that it's a waste of time going to a refugee camp. It's: "I'm better off getting my hands on some money and buying a way to Europe."

Dadaab was built as a temporary camp around 25 years ago. Do you think that if we were to talk to you in another 10, 20 years from now, the camp will still exist?

I'm pretty confident that there will still be a city in the desert in that place. It's possible that some people will have gone back to Somalia, because the situation in Somalia shows some signs of improving a little bit at the moment. But for many people, they've grown up their whole lives there. They've invested in businesses there. They've buried their relatives in the ground. They may also have savings buried in the ground. And for them, it is, for better or worse, home. And that's one of the strangest things to come out of my time there, is that you could call this forsaken place home. But some do.

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