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Farewell Dadaab: leaving the world's biggest refugee camp

Posted by Brian McSorley Water & Sanitation Engineering Adviser

20th Aug 2013

Dadaab camp. Credit: Oxfam

Following on from World Humanitarian Day, Brian McSorley gives a personal view on leaving Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, after three years of managing Oxfam's refugee programme there.

For most people, the first time they heard of Dadaab was in 2011 during the East Africa food crisis when images of weary Somalis crossing the desert fleeing drought, famine and continued conflict were beamed into their living rooms. 

New arrivals in Dadaab, 2011Many arrivals (like those shown on the left) had horrific stories of hardship or loss having trekked several hundreds of kilometres from their homeland and had lost family members along the way. 

The history of Dadaab, however, goes back a further 20 years to 1992 when the first camps - Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera - were formed. 

Oxfam Kenya's involvement in Dadaab was just starting when I joined the Country Programme from Eritrea in 2006. By 2010, the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) had invited us to set up three new camps in order to decongest existing overcrowded camps and provide space for the thousands of new people arriving daily. I was given the task of recruiting staff and managing the programme.

Three years later, having successfully completed the tasks we were invited to do, Oxfam handed over its responsibilities to other partners and I was the last remaining member of the Oxfam Dadaab team as we closed our programme in early 2013.   

During this time I had the pleasure of working with some of Oxfam's most experienced international staff as well as helping to recruit a wonderful team of committed Kenyans who developed as they were mentored by staff who had worked in other major humanitarian crises (Haiti, the South Asian tsunami, Kosova, Goma etc).  

The work in numbers...

Latrine slab production at Ifo 2. Credit: Oxfam

Oxfam drilled 14 high yielding boreholes, constructed 88 kilometres of pipeline, 275 tapstands, almost 4,000 latrines and on a daily basis was supplying over 2 million litres of water to more than 86,000 refugees. In addition we supported 50,000 people from drought affected communities surrounding the refugee camps.

...and innovations

Oxfam pioneered the use of the dome-slab at Dadaab: a lighter, cheaper and more durable latrine slab than what had been made for 20 years. It was subsequently adopted by all other agencies involved in sanitation activities. We also introduced a new pit liner for dealing with collapsible soils in one camp and improved the tap stand design

In addition, Oxfam installed the first solar pump in any of the camps and demonstrated that it is a reliable and cost effective alternative to diesel generators. This system will save UNHCR at least $7,500 a year and pay for itself in three years. Finally, by actively encouraging collaboration, joint planning and the development of shared training and contingency plans, we also helped to improve coordination and harmonisation between agencies engaged in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene promotion) sector

Increasing militarisation and decreasing security

All this was achieved despite a steady deterioration in security and an increased violence within the camps.  Seven aid workers were kidnapped in three separate events, with at least two others being shot. Targeted attacks, explosions and assassinations, although not targeting aid workers directly, were a common occurrence within and around the camps.  

Staff tents in Dadaab

The satisfaction of having overseen this programme from its inception to successful closure was mixed with another strong emotion: relief. Relief that our staff were all safe and that the phone call we feared, one telling us there'd been an incident affecting Oxfam staff, never came.  

In terms of access to WASH services, Oxfam left Dadaab in a far healthier state than the situation we found upon our arrival.  However, due to the increased militarisation within the camps, there is little doubt that the safety, security and general well being of refugees has deteriorated.   

Dadaab is no longer in the news and even within the Oxfam office these days it is rarely mentioned.  For me and our fantastic team, we will never forget our time in Dadaab, and the "spirit of Dadaab" lives on with eleven of the inexperienced Kenyan staff we recruited back in 2010 and 2011 now leading humanitarian work themselves in South Sudan, Ethiopia, DRC, Yemen and Sierra Leone.  

It is easy to forget, though, that whilst we are not there and the TV cameras have moved on to Syria and other humanitarian emergencies, there are still over 400,000 Somali refugees who remain in Dadaab, in need of humanitarian assistance. Some of whom were born in Dadaab and only know Dadaab as their home.

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Blog post written by Brian McSorley

Water & Sanitation Engineering Adviser

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Brian McSorley