Refugee world: Kenya camp illustrates a global problem

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The situation of the East African nation of Kenya face to face with an out-of-control camp of Somali refugees at Dadaab is a signal that the current refugee situation is reaching a problem level stretching the world’s capacity to cope.

Dadaab was established in Kenya near the Kenya-Somalia border in 1991, to try to deal with a substantial flow of refugees from Somalia in the wake of the collapse of government and uptick in fighting there. It is hard to measure the degree to which the refugees’ displacement from Somalia to Kenya was due to economic reasons as opposed to political developments in that troubled country.

The fighting, and corresponding economic collapse, in Somalia has continued intermittently ever since and the population of Dadaab has risen from its original, anticipated 90,000 to a number estimated at 500,000. The United Nations says it has no idea how many residents the camps have now. In addition, many Somalis in Kenya have settled in the Eastleigh section of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

The terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September, killing 67, were Somalis living in Dadaab and Eastleigh. Some of the refugee families in Dadaab are now in their third generation.

Apart from the refugees in Kenya, there are also still Somalis claiming that status from the 1977-78 Ogaden war. Some refuse to return to Somalia and some even to be counted since the result might be a reduction in their benefits.

Apart from the Somalis, there are also thousands of Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, displaced Sudanese still in Darfur and refugees who are remnants of other wars around the globe, including the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The problems for the world are, first, the heavy burden large numbers of refugees place on countries that accept them; second, the financial cost to the international community of supporting them in their places of refuge; and, third, the reluctance of many of them to return to their countries of origin even after things have calmed down, particularly if they fled for economic reasons.

The question may be, when is a refugee really simply an illegal immigrant? There are rules defining refugee status, but it may be that situations like Dadaab in Kenya now require a careful review of those rules.

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