When one-year-old Ahmed Dimbil arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp from Kismayu with his father in 1991, he had no idea that the camp would be his home throughout his childhood and adolescence.
He is among those Somali refugees who have never experienced life outside the camp. In all the past 25 years, he has only left the camp once, in 2003 when he briefly visited nearby Garissa with some friends. Then the movement of refugees was not as restricted as it is now.
Twenty-six year-old Ahmed, who works as an interpreter at the UNHCR field office in Dadaab, is a young and ambitious man trapped in a world that he has little control over. Without a college degree and very little income, he can only dream of a better life in another country. However, obtaining asylum is becoming increasingly difficult and waiting lists are long.
In January this year, Ahmed married the love of his life, Nasro, a fellow refugee. The couple is now expecting its first child, who will be one of thousands that are born in the camp each year.
Ahmed and Nasro live in Ifo camp, one of the five that make up the Dadaab complex. Ifo looks like a rural village, with goats and camels wandering around small shops selling everything from smartphones to camel milk.
However, the UNHCR-donated plastic sheet tents that residents call home and the restricted mobility make it feel like an open prison.
There are schools, clinics, feeding centres, and boreholes set up by humanitarian agencies, but as Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR representative in Kenya, admits, the camp provides “a false sense of normality” in a highly abnormal environment.
Refugees in Dadaab have little power to make decisions that affect their lives, which creates a sense of helplessness and despair.
Living as a refugee dependant on handouts for long periods erodes prescribed gender roles and leads to loss of self-esteem and dignity. Men in the camp feel emasculated and women face the constant threat of rape and other forms of violence.
Restrictions imposed by the Kenyan Government make it difficult for the refugees to move out of the camp and establish a financially independent existence.
UNHCR says that most refugees in Dadaab view local integration as the most favourable solution to their plight, but the Kenyan Government will not allow it. On the contrary, the government’s position on refugees has become even more hardline and there are now demands that the camp be shut down permanently.
Officials at the UN refugee agency say that given the political, social, and economic implications of integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees into Kenyan society, the government’s position is understandable, but refugees’ rights under international laws must be respected.
The population of the Dadaab camp is already three times that of the local host community living in Dadaab town.
The tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia that aims to bring about the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees is being implemented, but has not yet yielded significant results.
By June this year, only 2,313 refugees had gone back to Kismayu, Baidoa, and Luuq, the three areas in Somalia identified as suitable for resettlement, although there are plans to open up Mogadishu, Jowhar, and other districts for returning refugees.
For Ahmed, going back to Somalia is not an option as he has no family or land there. Acquiring Kenyan citizenship is not an alternative either, he says, because he has not known life outside the camp and would find it difficult to assimilate into Kenyan society.
He is looking for a third country where he can start afresh, a place where he can forget about the harshness of life in Dadaab and where he and his family can lead normal lives.
Somalia stole Ahmed’s dreams, Dadaab stifled them, and the repatriation programme may just kill them. I hope that Ahmed will get to realise his dreams in the near future.
Story First appeared on Allafrica.com