In the fall of last year, the landscape of the Dadaab refugee complex, about fifty miles from Kenya’s border with Somalia, began to change dramatically. Slipshod tents built from scavenged plant matter and windblown detritus started springing up amongst the acacia trees that dot the arid plains of northeastern Kenya.
Dadaab’s boundaries had been swelling for years, but never so far out, nor so quickly. It started at Dagahaley, one of the three original camps that make up the complex, and then at a second camp, Ifo. With no more designated land to give to arriving refugees—plots had run out in 2008—unauthorized camps, referred to grimly as “the outskirts,” appeared beyond the official sites. The white tarpaulin tents of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave way to motley hemispherical huts: loose twigs braided together into giant tumbleweeds and draped with old clothing, burlap and scraps of trash.
By February of this year, another ad hoc settlement was spreading, outside of the third camp, Hagadera. The monthly arrival rate at Dadaab had climbed by then from somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people, to about 10,000. And the settlements kept growing.
By the time famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on July 20—another three regions were deemed certifiably famished in early August—the monthly rate had tripled: at least 30,000 more refugees had arrived between June and July, roughly the number of people each camp was designed to shelter when they were first established in 1991. Now, around 440,000 people live in this camp built for 90,000. Visiting Dadaab makes one thing plain: this crisis did not just “strike” Somalia, contrary to what the headlines exclaim.
“Our animals died, and we have had no rain, to farm, for two years,” Hussein Mohamed Siad told me at Ifo in June. He and his family had just arrived, walking from the embattled Gedo region of Somalia, where in February some 180 villages had already been abandoned because of the drought. It took them thirty-one days to reach Dadaab. “For the last twenty years we have had increasing war,” he said. “But for us, the main reason we run is drought.” He’d already lost most of his livestock when militiamen came to take the rest.
There is no question that governments and international agencies have been sluggish in their response to the drought in the Horn of Africa. Pledges of emergency aid started flowing in mid-July, but the gulf between escalating UN appeals and international donations suggest that both sides seriously underestimated the scope of the disaster. In Somalia, the most distressed and most challenging country to reach, the twenty-year-old civil war has meant even less emergency relief than its neighbors. This is not just due to Somali insecurity: a counterproductive international intervention has helped create the conditions for the crisis, and is now impeding the response. (Over the same period, globalized economic policies have opened the region to agricultural markets while stifling subsistence agriculture—a larger trend underlying the famine that has received little honest discussion.)