Defusing Dadaab: The Security Implications of Somali Refugee Flows in Kenya

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By Corey Sobel – One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is taking place in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. The conflict between the Somali extremist group al Shabaab and the US-backed Transitional Government has worsened dramatically over the past year and, as a result, over 43,000 Somali citizens have fled to Dadaab since January 2009. Dadaab, originally intended to hold just 90,000 occupants, now hosts nearly 300,000 people. Reports from the region document a dire humanitarian situation: tens of thousands of refugees lack adequate access to food, shelter, and health services.

The humanitarian implications of this crisis alone merit a more effective response from the international community. But the need for action becomes even more urgent when one considers the troubling implications Dadaab could have for regional-and international-security.

Located a mere 50 miles from the porous Kenya-Somalia border, Dadaab is in Kenya’s North-Eastern Province, an ethnically Somali region that has provided transit routes and hideouts for several high profile extremists, including the plotters of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi. The province has proven an ideal hiding place for several reasons.

North-Eastern is one of Kenya’s two majority Muslim provinces. Since independence in 1963, Muslims have been the most politically and economically disenfranchised group in a heavily Christian Kenya. Some believe that such marginalization might make these Muslims more sympathetic to extremist causes and that might be especially true for ethnic-Somali Kenyans in North-Eastern who are regularly exposed to the ideas of radical Somalis.[1]

But Kenya’s Muslims are a largely peaceful and patriotic people and a bigger source of vulnerability for the country seems to be its intractable culture of corruption.  Kenya has been beset by graft for decades-the funding and training of Kenyan police and military forces has been abysmal. Underpaid border guards are often bribed by desperate southward-fleeing Somalis and, even when more vigilant and better-trained guards do exist, they are usually too few and too overwhelmed by the constant influx of refugees to effectively screen for extremist elements. 

Kenya’s corrupt, ill-trained, and short-staffed border forces find themselves helpless in the face of the recent, relentless flow of Somali refugees. When Ethiopia-having failed in its US-backed attempt to occupy and stabilize Somalia-withdrew its troops in January 2009, it left a power vacuum that has been wrangled over by weak transitional governments and the extremist group, al Shabaab.  Al Shabaab has gained ascendancy throughout much of southern Somalia and has ratcheted up its violent and fundamentalist campaign to control the country, causing over 500 Somali refugees to pour into Kenya each day.[2] And given Kenya’s own failure to establish a viable government since 2007, the border will continue to be an open byway both for people legitimately fleeing violence and for extremist elements hoping to use the province to facilitate its violent work.  According to a recent defector from al Shabaab, ‘”Our commanders were trying to tell us that there’s no Somali national flag and no national borders’…’They told us the jihad will never end. Once we finish in Somalia, we go to Kenya and then elsewhere.'”[3]

If Dadaab were considered a city, it would already rank as the fourth-most populous in all of Kenya. Outbreaks of measles and cholera have been reported in the camp and sexual and gender-based violence has recently soared by 30 percent.[4] There are constant food shortages and extreme weather only exacerbates housing problems for residents. Additionally, tensions are worsening between Dadaab residents and local Kenyans as they compete for resources and the crime rate rises.  

The various humanitarian and security staff serving Dadaab are overwhelmed and cannot effectively monitor those leaving and entering the camp. The flow of refugees has also provided a potential base of operations and recruiting for extremists. Indeed, the concern over recruitment is not new: in 2006, a Care aid worker in Dadaab explained that “‘[s]ympathizers with both the Islamists and the [former Transitional] government are returning to Somalia to join militias because they aren’t engaged in positive activities here.'”[5] 

UNHCR and major aid agencies have taken initial steps to alleviate the current strain on Dadaab. Emergency funding for foodstuffs and medicine has been raised. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration have begun a multi-phase plan to relocate some 12,000 refugees to Western Kenya’s Kakuma Camp.[6] The UN estimates it will need $92 million to upgrade the infrastructure of refugee sites. Another solution is to build several smaller camps that can be more easily managed and screened.

Of course, Dadaab is not the only problem caused by Somalia’s instability. Somali pirates continue to roam the Gulf of Aden, fighting has created over 1 million internally displaced civilians, and the once-peaceful northern regions of the country are themselves facing upheavals. The only way to truly address Dadaab is to find a viable political solution for Somalia. In the meantime, though, steps can and should be taken to mitigate the humanitarian and security threats posed by the fluid Kenya-Somalia border. Humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa can no longer be viewed in isolation of their security implications and, for that reason, the problem of Dadaab requires immediate action. 

[1] For an example of this view, see Reuben Kyama, “The Threat of Terrorism to Kenya”. The Jamestown Foundation. October 5, 2006.

[2] See Malkhadir M. Muhumed, “Somalis create world’s largest refugee camp”. The Associated Press. June 26, 2009.

[3]Jeffrey Gettleman. “In Somalia, a Leader is Raising Hopes for Stability”.  The New York Times. September 16, 2009.

[4] See “Dadaab grappling with ‘dramatic’ refugee situation” IRIN, August 6, 2009.

[5] “Somalia’s woes grow in Kenyan refugee camps” Mail and Guardian (South Africa). October 10, 2006.

[6] “UNHCR relocates Somali refugees” AfricaNews. August 21, 2009.

It should be noted that Kakuma itself is already struggling with overcrowding. Circumstances there will only get worse as intertribal violence continues to increase in South Sudan.


Corey Sobel is a Research Associate with the Stimson Center’s Environmental Security program.

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