When is Displacement Permanent: Dadaab and the lessons of Somalia’s war without end

Refugees have been much in the news in the past several years. More than 20 million people are displaced just in the Middle East and North Africa. Around the world, the total number of refugees is greater than those displaced in times of world war. International organizations have struggled to cope with the refugee crises of recent years, but lessons from past crises also haunt the community of practitioners trying to assist those displaced by conflict.

In the early 1990’s the nation-state of Somalia collapsed and a civil war began that has still not ended. While the international community still recognizes Somalia as a nation-state, it has not been one in a practical sense for nearly three decades.

In the Dadaab refugee camp, established in Kenya at the start of the conflict, an entire generation of displaced persons has been born and raised since being displaced from Somalia. Efforts to provide relief and resettlement at the start of the war have been replaced with serious concerns that the camp has now become a permanent part of Kenya, with the nominally Somali residents being increasingly disconnected from a home that many have never seen.

Dadaab represents the terrible problem of refugee relief. International law, and human fellow feeling, compel people to provide basic humanitarian relief for the people displaced by conflict. At the same time, the idea is that these people should eventually either be resettled or they should return home. But what do you do when they cannot return home and they don’t want to permanently move to another country?

This is the paradox of the modern refugee camp: They are awful places, but less awful than many alternatives. Somalia is still basically a failed state. While some sections of the country are relatively stable, the civil war drags on and on. The danger to Somalis in Dadaab is very real. At the same time, there are people who have lived in the camp for 25 years. That is a quarter-century of life in a makeshift shanty-town.

As terrible as the camp is, there is a consistent supply of food, basic (if patchy) security, and even schools and markets for people to learn and work in. It may not be idyllic, but it beats being shot in the crossfire of competing militias.

More Somalis in Dadaab could potentially resettle, but most of the world does not want them. The idea that Western countries do not want to allow foreign refugees to resettle is not new. Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others join Somalis on a list of peoples that no Western country wants. Poor neighboring countries, with high unemployment and relatively small formal economies are not much more welcoming to large numbers of foreigners coming into the labor market.

At the end of the day, Dadaab provides a powerful warning for the large number of refugee crises facing the world today. It is possible that in seeking to provide temporary relief, they may create a permanent group of stateless persons. If the underlying conflict is not concluded and peace restored, we may see millions more people joining the ranks of the stateless.

It is often argued that we are making the world a better place by learning from our history. It remains to be seen if this will be true for today’s refugees.



  1. If international humanitarian law requires that states accept refugees for resettlement, why do Western countries ignore their commitments and refuse to accept refugees into their countries? How does the democratic nature of their political systems make this worse for refugees seeking resettlement?
  2. In the absence of an end to the conflict that causes displacement, is there any real way to solve the dilemma of what to do to help refugees without turning them into permanently stateless persons?
  3. The United Nations and numerous NGO’s work tirelessly to care for refugees. Does the fact that this care is provided by an IGO and NGO’s in partnership make it easier for nation-states to ignore the issues related to refugees? Does the UN make it easier to pass the buck to others?