“This is what a million people looks like”
The visual and journalistic rhetoric of refugee camps, as produced and consumed by the West, follows a well-known script. Following some armed conflict and/or natural catastrophe, tens of thousands star-crossed innocents cross into a foreign land with whatever they can carry, and into the waiting arms of whatever the (generally reluctant) host country has managed to jury-rig, along with the help of IRC or UNHCR or any of the other major players in the global humanitarian complex. Once the camps are established, they are quickly brought to capacity and then some, at which moment the journalists descend, documenting the misery, the helplessness and the usual hand-wringing on the part of all involved. We see how initial, optimistic talk of rapid repatriation by various officials eventually gives way to finger-pointing and panicky fund-raising as the temporary situation assumes increasingly permanent characteristics. Finally, unless or until famine or disease reinvigorate coverage of these sites, our awareness of these unhappy situations slips unnoticed into the collective memory hole.
However, there is another, far more compelling and humane way to view these camps, and that is as prototypical urban types. The various ways in which we define the urban, such as population density, non-agricultural economic activity, and reasonably well-defined boundaries, are conditions that are here amply met. And when one considers the ways in which people artificially conjure cities (consider a company town, built for the sole purpose of extracting a natural resource), then why shouldn’t we consider refugee camps to be cities? More importantly, if we do consent to think of them as cities, what is it that we can learn from them?
Consider, for example, the three refugee camps collectively known as Daadab, in northeastern Kenya. Founded in 1991 to take in Somali refugees from the then-new civil war, the camp is now the world’s largest, and is still growing after 22 years; the influx of new arrivals has been guaranteed not only by the still-unresolved civil war, but also by the added stress of two failed monsoons in the Horn of Africa. As a result,
Dadaab is now the third-largest city in Kenya, but there are no Kenyans living there. Instead, it is home to 450,000 Somalis in a camp that was built for 90,000 people. Refugees…are not permitted to leave the camp, because the Kenyan government wants them to remain refugees and not become illegal immigrants. The government also prohibits them from working.
This illustrates the paradox of the refugee camp and why, at first blush, it may seem counterintuitive to think of this form as a fundamentally, if prototypically, urban one. For one, the restrictions on the freedom of mobility violates our contemporary conception of the city: as a place to which people migrate in order to seek economic opportunity (I should note that this is debunked below). The additional perception of refugees as victims dependent on the largesse of both host country and humanitarian organizations – which, of course, operate under their own incentives that are not necessarily aligned with the long-term desires of the refugees – further removes them from the perception as independent actors.
And yet, as the case of Dadaab reveals, we really do have a city on our hands. The logistics of housing and feeding nearly half a million people are formidable, and to facilitate an organized approach the camp is laid out in a grid, with every family assigned an address. Even though it may be motivated only by pragmatism, this is de facto urban planning.
The grid layout, by seeking out the efficiencies generated by proximity, creates the conditions for a socialization that is specifically urban. This is particularly striking when one realizes that those being so “urbanized” are people who had, up until that point, likely lived in rural settings. And as the camps grow, infrastructure and services have to maintain pace, and schools and hospitals are founded at strategic locations in order to serve the population. There are also “internet cafes, pharmacies, auto repair shops, and bus depots.” On the other end of things, formal cemeteries have been established and the burial of the dead regimented.
Nor is this kind of behavior unique to a camp the size of Dadaab. As Bram Jansen notes when examining Kakuma, another Kenyan refugee camp (established in 1992) that recently exceeded its capacity of 100,000 has seen the firm establishment of a vibrant economy:
Refugees are often presented as a homogeneous group or as target groups for intervention – women, children, or the elderly. In Kakuma, however, other socio-economic strata have emerged, as there is a (visible and invisible) division of labour and livelihoods (merchants and their employees, the clergy such as sheiks and pastors and refugee leaders, incentive workers employed by the aid agencies, and those who receive remittances from abroad or have income and opportunities from Kenyan cities such as Nairobi). The refugees who are totally dependent on handouts can be seen as a form of poor ‘under-class’.
The disbursement of food, which is pretty much all we see when consuming journalism concerning the generic refugee camp, is really just a small part of daily life, and Kakuma’s residents are in no way entirely dependent on handouts from on high. In fact, rations are used as a means of exchange with the world beyond the camp’s boundaries:
The markets for fresh vegetables and goat meat are very large. The locals sell cattle, goats, camels, chickens and vegetables to the refugees, either through shops or directly to the refugees. Conversely, the refugees also sell their rations and small produce to locals (maize for sorghum for instance). Shops in the camp import a variety of products from Nairobi and the Dadaab camp, the only other UNHCR-run refugee location in Kenya, or even from overseas. Bicycles, clothing, suitcases, radios, cassette and CD players and a wide variety of household items are sold, including cosmetics and hygiene products. People have mobile phones and at the time of the study  there were two internet cafes in the camp, whereas in the surrounding towns there were none.
Even in 2000 – that is, only 8 years after Kakuma’s founding – Marc-Antoine de Montclos and Peter Kagwanja noted that “Somali and Ethiopian refugees employ [local] children as domestic servants” (p214). Given this somewhat surprising turn of events, one might reasonably ask how the refugees get hold of the cash needed to participate in this kind of an economy. They are supposed to be penniless, after all.
One part of the answer is that the characteristics intrinsic to the camp itself serve to distort the local economy. For example, as Montclos and Kagwanja note, “Goods sold in the camp are indeed very cheap because refugees do not pay rent, food, health care or education for their children… The native populations have expressed discontent over the fact that apart from food sold at very low prices they are not deriving any advantage from the humanitarian aid” (pp215, 218). In effect, the Kenyan government and its NGO partners have subsidized the cost of doing business for the camp’s entrepreneurs. In turn, these economic actors have driven a number of Kenyan businesses out of the local market. This neatly illustrates the fact that maintaining such an artificial conurbation has many subtle and unintended consequences.
There is another way in which the camp’s residents secure income that is equally instructive. Another truism of refugee camp discourse is the idea that refugee camps are impenetrable, topped with razor wire and authoritatively cut off from the rest of the world by guards and checkpoints. All this, of course, serves to feed the idea that refugees simultaneously occupy the categories of both prisoners and helpless prey; it is a crucial aspect of the drama that we as Westerners feel must constitute the refugee camp experience. In fact, the boundaries of both Kakuma and Dadaab are more porous than such categories might first allow. As Jensen observed in Kakuma:
Refugees in Kenya (as in many other camps) are officially not allowed to work. Inside the camp, however, what is officially allowed in this respect and what actually takes place can differ greatly. The same applies to travel. While refugees are officially restricted to the camp, some can be seen departing for and returning from Nairobi, other Kenyan cities and even Sudan on a daily basis.
Of course, local populations are all too happy to provide bus service to anyone who can pay for it, and entering and leaving the camps is simply a matter of paying out a small bribe to the guards, assuming that one is observed coming or going in the first place. Ironically, ‘kakuma’ is a Swahili word for ‘nowhere,’ but Kakuma seems to be anywhere but nowhere. Like any other place that contains plenty of people living in close quarters, it is firmly rooted in the context of its place, and commerce will out. In fact, Jansen notes that Kakuma has become generally known as a place of opportunity, to the extent that in 2006 the camp saw an influx of 2000 Tanzanians, who, unlike Somalis and Sudanese, have much less reason to flee their country.
To be sure, I do not mean to paint an overly rosy picture of refugee camps. The fact is that new arrivals bring with them not much more than terrifying tales and misery. When they enter these socio-economic systems, they do so at the bottom rung. The systems themselves are doubtless cutthroat and in no way enjoy the protection of impartial courts or guaranteed bank deposits. And the further existence of the camps is entirely at the mercy of the Kenyan government and funding secured by the NGOs. If the camps were to close precipitously, hundreds of thousands of stateless persons would have to be repatriated, or would find their way into the slums of Nairobi. The cost would be enormous. But, as the longevity of these institutions suggests, perhaps the real task is to normalize the relationship between what is inside the camps and what is outside it.
Fortunately, this is being recognized in a belated but growing manner on the part of the bureaucratic apparatus. Back in Dadaab, UNHCR’s Henok Ochalla is one of the camp’s five managers. Recently profiled by Der Spiegel, he is one official who has taken the perspective of planning for the permanence of conurbanations such as Dadaab:
Ochalla is in the process of building a new city. The new extension [to Dadaab] will be the size of the German city of Tübingen, about 90,000 people, and it will come complete with schools, market squares and police stations…Ochalla has a map on his laptop of his future city, with street names like Hope Road, Unity Road and Friends Road. According to the plan, each family will receive a 10- by 12-meter (33 by 39-foot) plot of land. There are 18 sections, which are divided into nine blocks with 192 plots in each block. The plan includes mosques, child-friendly zones and health units. “Here,” says Ochalla, pointing to pink rectangles on the map, “are eight elementary schools and a high-school. And then life begins.”
Unsurprisingly, the Kenyan government is none too excited at the prospect of half a million Somalis establishing a permanent presence in Kenya, no matter how (superficially) sequestered they might be. Getting the permission to extend Dadaab has therefore been a constant tug-of-war. On the other hand, the Kenyans are likely too late anyway:
Eastleigh, a neighbourhood on the east side of [Nairobi], is home to an estimated 120,000 refugees. The majority are Somalis who have fled conflict and drought in their own country. Rather than head for refugee camps, increasingly they seek the anonymity and opportunities for self-reliance offered by the city. They are not alone in this choice – according to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee body, more than half of the world’s refugees now live in urban settings.
The UN has estimated that Dadaab now houses 6,000 grandchildren of the original arrivals, whereas Eastleigh is doing quite well. A more progressive – or even opportunistic – host government would surely be thinking about how to exploit this presence for Kenya’s own prosperity. Barring that, another option was phlegmatically proposed by a local when he remarked on Kakuma's importance: “We are nothing without these refugees, if they go, we’ll have to fly the Palestinians in.”