United Methodist Missionary Paul Jeffrey recently returned from the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, where he had traveled for ACT Alliance, as a member of the ACT Alliance Rapid Support Team, and for UMCOR. Read his observations on the severe drought that daily brings 1,300 refugees and displaced people to the camps.
Habiba Abdi Hassan walked across the East African desert for 30 days, battling hunger, wild animals, and bandits before arriving at the Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya. Back home in the Middle Juba Valley of Somalia, it hadn’t rained in over two years, and most of her family’s animals had died. So she left her husband to care for the remaining goats and set off with her four children on a journey of desperation and hope.
“We didn’t have any real choice. We could have stayed home, but soon we all would have died like the animals,” she said. “By coming to Dadaab, we stay alive, and my daughters can go to school. We’d like to go back home someday, God willing, but it’s hard to survive without rain.”
Established two decades ago, the Dadaab refugee complex is actually composed of three separate camps with a total population near 400,000 people. It’s the world’s largest refugee settlement and has been bursting at the seams with more than 1,300 new arrivals every day for several weeks. Habiba Abdi Hassan was one of those, and soon after arriving was crowded into the lines of refugees seeking shelter, food, and other materials needed to survive the hot and dusty environment.
The drought is affecting millions of families throughout the Horn of Africa. Animals are dying and families are being displaced in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Although global climate change plays a role in this crisis, other factors contribute to a deadly cocktail of suffering. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the situation a “catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought.”
In Somalia, military conflict and governance issues have made life difficult, and the militant group al-Shabab has prohibited most aid groups from working in territory it controls. In Ethiopia, stressed pastoralists seeking new grazing lands closer to rivers are finding huge swaths of land taken over by foreign agricultural companies, at times to grow biofuels. Global food prices have soared across the region, the result of climate change and market speculation, so even though many markets are full, most people can’t afford to buy the food they need. And the embrace of radical free-market economic policies has kept governments from responding appropriately; Kenya, for example, is not offering to drill new wells or help pastoralists with veterinary services or the introduction of hardier species of animals.
The Dadaab complex is managed by the ACT Alliance, the international network of churches and church agencies responding to emergencies and development challenges. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a member of the ACT Alliance, and supports the work there, which is carried out by another ACT Alliance member, the Lutheran World Federation.
Managing the Dadaab complex means ensuring that the more than two dozen UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations there coordinate their work to avoid overlaps or gaps in service. Besides making sure that needs for shelter, food, medical care, and protection are met, the ACT Alliance coordinates a network of Community Peace and Security Teams composed of refugee men and women who provide self-policing for the camps, often intervening in disputes in the stressful environment before they turn violent. The ACT Alliance, which assumed management of the complex in 2008, has also introduced democratic elections in which refugees choose their own leaders—assuring refugees a voice in how the camp is run and more quickly resolving the inevitable tensions that arise within such a large, concentrated population, as well as between the refugees and the local host communities.
With thousands of families living on the periphery of the camps, on July 25 the ACT Alliance began moving families into formal new extensions of two of the camps. Hundreds of tents are being pitched, water services installed, and health care made available.
Habiba Abdi Hassan and her four children now make one of those tents their home. She insists it’s temporary, that she ultimately wants to return to Somalia. Asked when that might be possible, she looks wistfully away to the east and doesn’t answer.