The sad economics of refugee camps

By XN Iraki | May 22, 2016

Kenya intends to close Dadaab refugee camp. The thinking seems to be that since Kenya has pacified Somalia the hard way, the refugees should go home. It is also alleged the camps are a security risk and a fertile ground for breeding terrorism.

Aerial view of IFO 2 refugee camp in Dadaab. Kenya plans to close the world’s largest refugee camp. [PHOTO: BEVERLYNE MUSILI/STANDARD]

Some argue that refugees are a good trump card to get more funding for military operations in Somalia and cite the sucking in of UN and other agencies. I have never been to any of the refugee camps in Kenya, but I did visit some Kenyans in such a camp in Uganda after 2008 post-election violence. It was not anything to write home about.

The biggest problem with refugees is not food or the basics, those are easily provided for. The toll is on their emotions. Leaving their home was bad enough, uncertainty on when to leave the camp and where to go are bad enough. From a humanitarian perspective, such camps should be closed.

But camps have an economic pedestal. These 600,000 people constitute a big market. Dadaab should be the third largest town in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. Such camps also provide a lucrative channel for donor funds through NGOs and other agencies.

Closing such camps will not just affect refugees but lots of other people who make money from their plight. It is the paradox of life, while some suffer, others thrive through their suffering. Even war has profiteers resulting from restrictions and disruption of economic laws of supply and demand.

Enough digression, should we really close Dabaab? From a security perspective, it is easy to say yes. Such a high number of people are hard to register and control. Unless you use electronic tags to track them, a number will slip through. Monitoring of such people is complicated by the fact that some have local names and talk local language.

One Kenyan has even suggested that we should give citizenship to all refugees and distribute them among the 47 counties. This will reduce human trafficking and bring lots of underground business into the mainstream. Any whiff of such a move could send more refugees across the borders. Who would not want to benefit from such a move? But more interesting is that new arrivals would be seen as voters and you can guess the political reaction.

National mosaic

USA once did that- regularizing millions of illegal immigrants. However, US is a big country and competition for scarce resources from education to housing is not that big. Besides, the country has a history of welcoming and integrating refugees, economic or otherwise. It is instructive that USA has no refugee camps and integration seems to be the norm.

Even South Africa has no such camps. I’m told that lots of top ANC leaders once stayed in refugee camps and they would loathe replicating that in their country. One often forgotten fact is that some adults were born and brought up in these camps and for all intentions and purposes are Kenyans. They probably talk Swahili and Sheng. How will they start their lives again in a ‘foreign country’?

From an Economic perspective, the refugees if integrated can be an economic asset. They bring new thinking and new perspectives. The Dadaab problem is integrating them into the society and the fact that one community is disproportionately represented.

Kenya has attracted refugees throughout history. The Bantus I’m told came from Congo, the Arabs have been with us for thousands of years, the Persians too in Wasini and the Chinese were here long before SGR.

The Nubians are here, the Italians came as prisoners of war and priests before they made Malindi their home. The Portuguese were here, Britons and other nationalities are here. A visit to any Mall in Nairobi is a mini UN assembly.

Past refugees were easily integrated; they came in trickles not droves. Most got integrated and became part and parcel of the national mosaic. Integrating refugees should be easy for us; we are used to diversity because of different ethnic groups.

What is the best option? Politics and economics must be considered in closing the refugee camp. Politically, it makes sense; insecurity has been a soft underbelly for Jubilee regime and sealing any loopholes in the security system is one of their prime objectives.

Economically speaking, refugees are an asset with their skills and consumption power. The best option is perhaps a gradual repatriation but first equipping refugees with skills that can sustain them once back home. How about making Somali part of The East African Community to accelerate her economic growth and make it attractive to returning refugees?

Finally, repatriating such a large number of refugees should not be a Kenyan affair; it should involve other stakeholders from UN agencies to Somalia government and counties that host such camps.

In Europe, a similar approach was adopted. What is not debatable is that refugee camps are inhuman and need closure to give their occupants new lives and stop constraining their potential. The way to do that will crack a few heads.

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