There’s nowhere to turn for Somali refugees in Dadaab refugee camp where education, health care and food security are at break point.

Islamic Relief policy and research analyst, Sadia Kidwai (pictured above and below), reports from her recent field visit. 


Last month I visited Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya – home to 300,000 refugees, making it the world’s second-largest refugee camp.

It is there in the Ifo sub-camp that Islamic Relief is responsible for providing primary health care and education for 70,000 people.

Conditions in Dadaab have become so bad that many residents want to leave but the ongoing conflict and drought in Somalia makes it impossible for them to return.

They are, as Fatima* told me, “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.

Fatima* came to Dadaab in 1991 at the age of two. Her family were farmers who fled the country after their land was confiscated by an armed group. Her grandfather and aunt were killed during this time.

Like so many families who have fled Somalia, they embarked on a gruelling journey, with no food and no water, and were completely exhausted when they arrived.

Funding cuts and restrictions putting people’s lives in danger

The restrictions on movement in and out of the camp mean that many of Dadaab’s residents are entirely dependent on the food rations they receive from international agencies and NGOs. But funding for food aid has reduced dramatically.

Staff at the health centre told me that over a third of deaths of children under the age of five in Ifo camp are caused by acute malnutrition.

There is not enough funding for specialist health staff, such as gynaecologists, cardiologists and paediatricians.

And we are unable to afford all the drugs we need. If there is a disaster or an epidemic we will struggle to cope.

At the Ifo hospital, managed by Islamic Relief, patients with critical issues often need specialist care. But the bureaucratic delays and obstacles they face in obtaining the necessary travel permits to nearby hospitals mean many patients are at risk of dying before they can get the help they need.

Health staff have reported people dying because of complications relating to hypertension, diabetes, brain and heart problems and cancer.

Islamic Relief pays the salaries of 516 teachers (only 40 of whom are fully qualified) for 40,000 pupils but we cannot afford enough furniture and text books. One pupil told me that they only had three text books in his class of over 20 pupils.

Parents and teachers told me that many children are either too malnourished to study or are leaving school to work and support their families.

Nowhere to turn

The Kenyan government tried to close the camp down in November last year but this was blocked by the High Court. For many of the people I spoke to, uncertainty around the closure of the camp was a major source of stress for them.

The uncertainty is also affecting children’s education. Issack, Islamic Relief’s senior education officer told me that school enrolment had dropped because “their mentality is, ‘What’s the point? It’s better to go to Somalia and start school afresh there’.”

The alternative is famine?

The seemingly obvious choice for many refugees would be to return to Somalia, and many have begun to do so over the past two years. However, while there have been some positive political developments in Somalia, many of the refugees I spoke to expressed their concerns about the lack of stability and facilities there.

Moreover, Somalia is now in the midst of its worst drought in living memory – there are places where people are literally starving to death, and some are even returning to Dadaab in desperation.

Lifeline snatched from beneath their feet

For those who cannot go back to Somalia, who can no longer bear life in a refugee camp and who see little hope of integrating into normal life in Kenya, their only hope is to be resettled elsewhere.

After years of waiting, Fatima* was ready to go to the United States in January this year.

Then the bombshell came with President Trump’s travel ban barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.

She was devastated and is now stuck in a state of limbo, not knowing what to do for the best for herself and her family. She is not alone. When Trump came into power, there were approximately 6,000 refugees (mainly Somali) who were about to be repatriated.

Salim,* 27, was also gearing up to go to the US when she was cruelly denied the opportunity. She explained how she now feels “like a football being kicked around between two sides”.

She asked me to ask the UK government to put pressure on President Trump to reverse this ban.

I felt a huge responsibility after I left Dadaab especially when so many of the people I spoke to said they were tired of people coming and asking them questions and nothing ever changing.

So, I hope that the Heads of State and Government from across East Africa and other key partners, meeting at the London Somalia Conference this week will come up with some concrete solutions to improve the situation in Somalia and life for Somali refugees in the region.

Islamic Relief staff in Dadaab are doing astounding work in the most difficult of circumstances – providing essential healthcare in our health centres and building the futures of Dadaab’s children in our schools. But with more funding, we could do so much more.

And I hope that western nations like the UK and the US start to take more responsibility for the Somali refugees caught in limbo and the refugee crisis in general.

No-one deserves to be in a position like Fatima*, “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”


*Names have been changed to protect people’s identity.

Find out more about our work in Somalia here.