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Education in the world’s largest refugee complex


Teaching in dadaab refugee camp

Desert shrubs, acacia trees and the wind are the only neighbours of the Dadaab refugee complex. For 24 years, this has served as home to many. There is no surface water; only thirty boreholes scattered across the 50km² area. More than 500,000 refugees are crammed into the complex surrounded by a huge fence and broken down into five smaller camps -Ifo, Ifo 2, Dagahaley, Hagadera and Kambios- surrounded by even more fences, made out of plants. The camps are divided in lines and cross-cutting avenues. Those who have lived there the longest have the sturdiest homes, while the newcomers – at least another 5000 each month- live in small huts built with sticks, blankets, tin cans, clay and wood planks provided by the aid agencies as shelter materials. Every refugee family is assigned a ration card in order to pick up food rations every 15 days from the World Food Programme (WFP) distribution centre, and there are markets with stores, internet cafes, hospitals and schools. Over time, the refugee complex has turned into a large urban enclave that sustains life – but little more.

With the ongoing civil war in Somalia and Kenya’s refusal to allow refugees the freedom of movement, even though we should not ignore its acceptance of nearly all refugees in its territory, the Dadaab complex has become a “city by accident” managed by the UNHCR, the Kenyan government, and hundreds of humanitarian organisations. As a result, refugees, 98 per cent of which come from Somalia, are forced into a never-ending state of limbo, a semi-permanent pseudo-society that fails to overcome emergency policies in favor of longer-term development strategies. As a school’s headmaster in Hagadera once said to researcher Cindy Horst: “By now, personally I have adapted to life here, to being a refugee, to being spoon-fed. But the problem is that we have stayed in refugee camps for ten years, with no hope of getting citizenship or at least equal human rights. We are not allowed to earn the same amount of money as Kenyan citizens, our movements are restricted and we cannot settle anywhere in Kenya. After disintegrating and collapsing due to clan conflicts, my country of origin which belongs to the Third World, has demoted me to the Fourth World of being a refugee”.

Dadaab refugee complex In this place of protracted exile, the debate between emergency and long-term aid unavoidably emerges when  referring to education of refugees. Not being considered as an essential emergency provision, even the few resources  invested in education often end up being arbitrarily transferred into the areas which have the most acute problems.  In the 37 schools (30 primary schools and seven secondary) existing in the complex, classes are comprised of up to  100 students while school supplies such as blackboards, chalk, pencils and, most importantly, textbooks are rarely  available: there is approximately one book for every 13 students. Teachers are often untrained refugees, paid with  so-called “incentive wages”, given that the Kenyan state does not allow refugees to earn a normal salary. In 2013,  close to 40,000 primary school children had their education interrupted by a two-week-long teachers’ strike: due to  funding difficulties, the African Development and Emergency Operation (ADEO), a local NGO that was responsible for primary education in Dadaab’s Ifo camps, had not paid more than 600 teachers from 19 schools their December 2012 salaries.

As for tertiary education, scholarships are one of the only avenues towards a university degree. The first successful attempt to establish a university campus in the camps was made in January 2013, with the opening of Dadaab University, a branch of Kenyatta University. After considerable efforts, the university has managed to offer diploma, undergraduate and master courses in academic fields such as public policy, finance, marketing, project management and many others. However, until early 2014, the university was set up within the secondary school building and the students could only undertake their studies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Furthermore, challenges such as the absence of a library and the lack of professors’ offices in the camps have left students without necessary resources in order to successfully complete their education. Even scholarships are sometimes not enough to cover the necessary educational costs. In 2012, Moulid Iftin Hujale, who has spent 14 of his 24 years in the Dadaab camps, won a scholarship through Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to pursue a higher education. However, with the scholarship covering only his tuition fees, Hujale would have to pay for his accommodation, meals and medical care by himself. Unable to cover the costs, he was forced to refuse the scholarship.

If the lack of resources is damaging to the establishment of long-term educational processes, Somalia’s political instability and the conflicts of interest between Kenya and the international community have been even more detrimental. Kenya’s government has declared itself incapable of integrating refugees in the job market and has repeatedly proposed closing down the camps, a suggestion that seems to resonate with many Kenyans who are tired of “paying the Somali tax” for the past 24 years. For its part, the international community, while often seen as one undivided block, is comprised of many different actors whose Dadaab refugee camp 2011contradictory goals and policies can definitely weigh on the educational processes in the camps. Besides, humanitarian aid workers have not always be seen as “the good guys”: some have been found to discriminate against refugees or override eligibility procedures for scholarships in return for financial compensations.

This is compounded by the insecurity caused by police abuse and clashes with Islamist militants which have further discouraged refugees from prioritising education over security. Such political instability should not be seen as a secondary threat to education:  conflicts of interest lead to unstable alliances, insecurity and lack of cooperation. This, in turn, results in contradictory educational policies, high drop-out rates, weak donor activity and delays or interruptions of educational processes.

In a place where girls miss school because they cannot afford sanitary pads and where eight year olds are recruited by militant groups, education is nothing more than a luxury, a secondary emergency provision that attracts less than 2 percent of humanitarian funding. Yet, the Dadaab refugee camps likely host some of the future leaders of Somalia, making it vital to shift from education for emergency to education for development by prioritising long term strategies, involving local organisations and communities in the planning and evaluation processes, as well as integrating refugee education in Kenya’s own development strategy. As the 2011 UNESCO report on education in armed conflict points out, “if you want peace and justice, if you want jobs and prosperity and if you want a people to be fair and tolerant towards one another, there is just one place to start – and that place is school”.

Words by Myrto Vogiatzi Pictures by Oxfam International (Teacher in Dadaab Refugee complex), United Nations Photo (Aerial views of Dadaab refugee camp), IHH Humanitarian Relief Fund (Children in Dadaab refugee camp)

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