East Africa: Opinion - We Need to Find Sustainable Solutions for Dadaab Refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets a group of refugees attending the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.

Dahabo left Somalia in June 1992 after hordes of men swept through her house and killed her brother. She was 13 years old when she arrived in the Dadaab refugee complex, known in the local dialect as the 'rocky hard place'.

She is still there today, now with her own 13-year-old daughter. Their story defies the short-term logic of refugee camps. Isolated, almost forgotten, they fear a return to Somalia and the insecurity that awaits them there.

But this week, governments have another chance to unblock the decades-long limbo of 200,000 Dadaab residents like Dahabo at the first ever Global Refugee Forum.

On the ground, we are witnessing a renewed commitment to finding solutions for refugees here. Since 2014, over 80,000 refugees have returned to Somalia as part of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme. Within Kenya, communities hosting refugees in Dadaab have shown remarkable generosity, while facing their own development challenges. County governments, with support from UNHCR, are developing pathways for refugees to access public services and integrate locally.

These are vital developments in resolving the long-term encampment of refugees. But the wider context remains pitted against lasting solutions for all. Refugees still cannot move freely outside the camp complex nor access formal education and employment; international assistance has struggled to keep up with refugees' needs; and insecurity reigns in Somalia.

Meanwhile, in Dadaab, water shortages are frequent, there is rarely enough food, and Dahabo and her eight children live cramped in a wind-blasted hut made of plastic sheeting.

One recent morning, Dahabo sat with her daughter, Marian, in the MSF clinic in Dagahaley camp, one of three camps that comprise Dadaab's sprawling refugee complex. Suffering from a congenital disease, Marian is often wracked by fits that leave her exhausted and weak. Every month, she comes to the clinic to receive her treatment. She could be cured in a specialised hospital, but in Dadaab, only those that need urgent, life-saving surgery can seek care outside the camps.

A fragile balance has been maintained between normalcy and emergency, life and death. As months became years and years became decades, this has trapped people in a paralysis from where they can neither move forwards nor backwards.

To end refugees' confinement, overtures by local counties like Garissa must be backed up by Kenyan authorities implementing policies that allow refugees to freely move, study and work. Host countries including Kenya should receive the full support of the international community to integrate refugees locally through pledges of long-term assistance to strengthen and expand local service delivery. In the transition from a chronic emergency towards longer-term solutions, it is vital that the quality and quantity of services to refugees is not compromised.

At the same time, both traditional and new resettlement countries should commit to increasing the number of resettlement places. This should be complemented by other pathways to self-reliance such as scholarships, work permits, extended family reunification and private sponsorships.

MSF has stood alongside refugees and host communities for most of Dadaab's existence and we will continue to provide medical care to refugees and host communities. But having witnessed first-hand for years the scarcity and uncertainty in which people have been forced to live, it is agonising to see such daily affronts to their dignity.

For the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have only known life in the camps of Dadaab, sustainable solutions out of this rocky hard place are desperately needed.

From Dadaab, we will be watching the world's first refugee summit with expectant eyes.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dana Krause is the Kenya Country Director for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.

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