The Other Refugee Crisis

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, is also a city replete with movie theaters, soccer leagues, markets, hotels and hospitals.

The most absorbing book in recent memory about life in refugee camps opens nowhere near that miserable, cloistered world. Disarmingly, Ben Rawlence begins “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp” in a room without windows at the White House. As an expert on the Horn of Africa, he was there in October 2014 to brief members of the National Security Council about Dadaab, a scorching, ramshackle conurbation of some 500,000 people in remote northern Kenya, near that country’s border with Somalia.

Mr. Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch who had spent time in the camp, had come to Washington in hopes of persuading the policy makers of how wrong their approach to the Somali refugee crisis was. The hundreds of thousands of people flowing out of that failed country were being systematically abused by Kenya, America’s most important ally in the region. For its security forces, the displaced people had become the targets of an immense racket.

Desperate Somalis were fleeced at roadblocks on their way into the country or rounded up on the streets of Nairobi, where they were forced to pay exorbitant bribes or subjected to having their identity papers ripped up on the spot. They were often beaten, raped or returned to their violence-stricken homeland. Meanwhile, according to Mr. Rawlence, the Kenyan government had all but annexed adjacent regions of Somalia, which it used to run an elaborate operation that generated millions of dollars from a bustling underground trade in smuggled sugar, which Kenyan leaders use to finance their political machines.

The NSC staff nodded politely as he detailed his views. But when it came to asking questions, they had but one preoccupation: Were the abusive conditions he described leading to Islamic radicalization? If not, Mr. Rawlence concludes, “the refugees could be safely forgotten.”



By Ben Rawlence
Picador, 384 pages, $26

But not by him. In the ensuing months, working not as a human-rights advocate but as a writer, Mr. Rawlence was able to give a fairly definitive answer to the NSC query. The half-million people of Dadaab, mostly Somalis, but also Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans and others, some of them already encamped there for three generations, exhibit few signs of religious extremism. Their overwhelming dream, which few of them will ever realize, is to find a way out, whether through refugee lotteries conducted by various Western countries or via the perilous and costly illegal trek to Europe. Some retain the hope that Somalia will somehow be restored to economic viability and peace.

Mr. Rawlence’s major feat is stripping away the anonymity that so often is attached to the word “refugee” by delving deeply into the lives of nine people in the camp. By doing so, he transforms its denizens from faceless victims into three-dimensional human beings. Along the way, Dadaab emerges from the ever-present heat and dust to become much more than a refugee camp. It is a real, if very peculiar, city; a world of mud huts with tin roofs but replete with movie theaters, soccer leagues, markets, hotels and hospitals. Most of Dadaab’s people are poor, but there is a middle class and a wealthy elite, some of whom got their starts in the black market by selling their own ration cards. What unites many of these people, Mr. Rawlence writes, is buufis, a Somali word coined in the camp. “It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that casts the present into shadow.”

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