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The Snake’s Head? Mistrust of Somali Refugees and the Encampment Policy in Kenya | East Africa |

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The Snake’s Head? Mistrust of Somali Refugees and the Encampment Policy in Kenya

Fred Nyongesa Ikanda

/ 9 Minuten zu lesen

For many years, Kenya has hosted the lion share of refugees from war-torn Somalia. These refugees are often perceived as a threat to security – not least due to their interlinkages with locals of Somali ethnic descent as well as their cross-border kinship networks.

Refugees from Somalia arriving at Dadaab refugee camp/Kenya 2011. The Somali refugee population in Kenya stands at 265,811 out of the overall 494,585 registered refugees and asylum seekers in the country. (© picture-alliance/dpa, Dai Kurokawa)

Kenya is among the major refugee hosting countries in Africa. In its recent history, it has experienced huge influxes of refugees from the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. This is mainly due to the relative peace and stability Kenya has enjoyed since it attained independence from Britain in 1963.

The largest refugee influx was caused by the 1991 collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia as well as the one of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, coupled with the protracted war in Sudan. These refugees were – and many of them are still – hosted at Kakuma camp and the Dadaab refugee complex. Kakuma camp mostly hosts South Sudanese refugees and is located in Turkana County in the northwestern corner of Kenya, while the Dadaab complex mainly hosts Somali refugees and is located in Garissa County in northeastern Kenya. The Dadaab complex is comprised of several camps: Ifo, Hagadera, Dagahaley, and the recently closed Kambioos camp (closed in 2017) and Ifo 2 (closed in 2018). These camps are typically regarded as one because they are situated close to each other around the town of Dadaab. The camps were designed to accommodate 90,000 refugees but hosted around 450,000 refugees by the mid 2010s who were fleeing persistent droughts and the civil war in Somalia. At the end of March 2020, 217,511 refugees were still living in Dadaab. The Somali refugee population in Kenya stands at 265,811 out of the overall 494,585 registered refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

Somali refugees are often perceived as a security threat. One reason for this is their back-and-forth cross-border movements and the fact that they are difficult to differentiate from Kenyan citizens of Somali ethnic descent who have traditionally faced marginalization and discrimination in Kenya. Somali refugees and Somali locals share the same language and the Islamic faith, are divided into clans, sub-clans, and lineage, and have a long history of interactions across the Kenya-Somalia border.

The overlapping relationships and experiences between locals and refugees can be observed in the Dadaab camps. Many people, for example, only started to identify themselves as locals in the late 1990s following the move by humanitarian agencies to include locals in their assistance programmes. These people had previously stayed inside the camps as registered refugees until they moved into new local villages to benefit from humanitarian aid.

With regard to mutual relations across the Kenyan-Somali border, there is a centuries-old practice of forming and breaking up groups (clans and sub-clans) as a means of governance and resource access. This mode of organizing kinship enables refugees in the camps to maintain networks with family members scattered across multiple spaces, including surrounding bushes where nomadic pastoralists operate, Kenyan urban centres, and Western countries where some refugees have been resettled. Kinsmen in different places are often bound by strong reciprocal obligations to relatives, which guarantee some level of assistance to Somalis living in and around the camps.

That these networks are efficient can also be seen with regard to cross-border trade of miraa (also known as khat) – a shrub grown in East Africa and the Middle East and chewed as a stimulant. The Dadaab camps and Somalia are now the largest market for this product. Somali locals and refugees are involved in its distribution. As one commentator noted, “the khat network reaches every corner of Somalia every day of the year and doesn’t stop for wars, drought, floods, epidemics, Friday prayers, Ramadan.”

Perception of Somalis as a “security problem”

Connecting through kinship kept camps going for long because these networks provided for example financial and material assistance for camp inhabitants. However, the government perceives these networks as channels of criminal activities. Referring to these complex cross-border networks, some government ministers have compared the Somalia-based al-Shabaab militia to a snake with its tail in Somalia and its head in Kenya. The group has claimed responsibility for various terrorist attacks in Kenya, including in Nairobi’s West Gate Mall in 2013, Garissa University in 2015, Dusit D2 Hotel in Nairobi in 2019, and several bombings at the Dadaab camps that have together killed more than 250 people. These terror activities commonly feed into popular claims in Kenya’s political circles that Dadaab is the epicentre of planning for these attacks and must therefore be closed down. However, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International maintain that the government has not provided evidence for these claims.

The government’s distrust of its Somali citizens is rooted in a history of insurgencies in the Somali-inhabited northeastern part of Kenya that dates back to colonial times when Mohammed Abdille Hassan led an insurrection against the British in the area. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, Kenyan Somalis fought to be incorporated in a Greater Somalia state in what has been dubbed as shifta war. Although an agreement between Somalia and Kenya in 1967 formally ended Somalia’s support for the insurgency, the Kenyan government still attributes the region’s insecurity to the shifta menace. Incidents like these explain the longstanding history of marginalization of Kenyan Somalis.

But for all the government’s efforts to restrict the mobility of its Somali citizens, the political border between Kenya and Somalia has largely been irrelevant to Somalis on either side of it due to kinship relations and nomadic pastoralism.

Insecurity and encampment policy

Against this backdrop the arrival of Somali refugees therefore appears to have only amplified the need for stricter containment policies. Until the 1990s, Kenya's refugee policy seemingly favoured local integration. Refugees, who back then came mostly from Uganda, were allowed to work as well as settle and move across Kenya. There were no large-scale camps in place. The Kenyan government was in charge of refugee management and status determination for asylum seekers who resided at the Thika Reception Centre just outside Nairobi. The place hosted refugees from Uganda and other neighbouring countries from 1981 (when it was opened with 320 refugees) to 1995 when it was closed.

Following the massive arrival of refugees at the beginning of the 1990s, Kenya's refugee policy changed. The Kenyan government transferred the duty of determining refugee status to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and started to move away from local integration to encampment policies, establishing 17 refugee camps, most of which were closed in the mid-1990s. Today, Dadaab and Kakuma are the only camps left to operate in Kenya.

Commentators have pointed out that the government deliberately located the Dadaab camps in the remote, isolated northeastern region because this made it easier to monitor Somali refugees who it often blames for the proliferation of firearms in the country. These insecurity concerns have not been without merit. Cases of banditry, rape, kidnappings, bombings, murder, and inter-communal strife have been a common occurrence throughout Dadaab camps’ existence.
There is also criticism that the government treats Somali refugees differently from other refugees and views them through a political lens while other refugees are first and foremost seen as a legal problem.

New refugee frameworks – lack of durable solutions

It was not until 2006 that the government finally yielded to international pressure to enact a Refugee Bill. It established a legally binding framework for refugee protection principles. This law has, however, done little in terms of finding durable solutions. The government consistently makes moves to close the Dadaab camps in a bid to emphasize repatriation as its preferred option for resolving the refugee problem (other UNHCR’s durable solutions are integration in the host country and resettlement in third countries). It is the intervention of Kenyan courts and UNHCR that have so far prevented the government from expelling Somali refugees. In 2013, UNHCR, the Kenyan government and the fragile Somali government signed a tripartite agreement on voluntary repatriation which was meant to provide a framework for voluntarily return of refugees to Somalia. Although the number of Somali refugees in Kenya has recently decreased, the vast majority of refugees shows unwillingness to return due the prevailing insecurity in Somalia.

The government also leveraged some provisions in the new refugee law of 2006 to synchronize the UNHCR and the Kenyan registration systems in a bid to draw a more clear-cut line between locals and refugees. This radically changed conditions for both groups in terms of accessing food rations, resettlement in Western countries and obtaining Kenyan IDs. Prior to the enactment of the refugee law, many people had exploited the blurriness between locals and refugees to register in both categories. Locals who registered as refugees were able to access free foodstuffs and services reserved for refugees, and refugees registering as locals could move freely in Kenya. The new provisions have thus limited livelihood options for Somali refugees and locals alike. Against this backdrop, kinship becomes even more important to sustain one's own existence. Indeed, access to resources and socio-political processes in the Dadaab camps is partly dependent on kinship relations. In this regard, refugees who arrived in Kenya in 1991-92 are in a more favourable position than refugees who arrived in the refugee waves of 2006-08 and 2011-12.

Those fleeing the war-related violence in Somalia in 1991-92 targeted exile places that hosted considerable numbers of relatives who provided them with a sense of belonging, especially because of how the war was waged along clan lines. Kinship played a lesser role in the refugee waves of 2006-08 and 2011-12 that drove many Somalis to random exile destinations because the former was triggered by al-Shabaab's insurgency against Somalia's Transitional Federal Government that was not waged along clan lines, and the latter by the then catastrophic drought in the Horn of Africa.

The distinction between “new” and “old” refugees illustrates the significance of these kinship dynamics. Refugees who arrived in the early 1990s define themselves as "old" refugees or locals and categorize those who fled to Kenya in the 2000s as "new" refugees. This is implicitly a lineage and clan distinction. “Old” refugees deploy a shared sense of Somaliness as a means of accessing resources, but rely on old-new distinctions to exclude non-relatives from the camp’s socio-political processes. New arrivals are thus more vulnerable because they lack the requisite kinship connections for accessing valued resources. Moreover, camp configurations are generally shaped by kinship. Minorities (Somali Bantus) are housed in specific areas for their own safety, while ethnic Somali refugees prefer to settle in blocks inhabited by their close relatives.

Kinship will keep on playing a significant role with regard to the situation of Somali refugees in Kenya and how these refugees are perceived by Kenyan politicians and society. Encampment – although aimed at isolating refugees from locals and containing alleged security threats – has not had the effect of breaking cross-border kinship ties. Instead, meagre livelihood resources in the Dadaab camps have encouraged Somali refugees to creatively improvise on cross-border kinship networks to sustain themselves.



  1. Ikanda, Fred (2014), Kinship, Hospitality and Humanitarianism: Locals and Refugees in Northeastern Kenya (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge).

  2. UNHCR Kenya (2020), Data Management Unit Nairobi, 31 March. Externer Link: (accessed: 5-5-2020).

  3. Results from author's fieldwork in the Dadaab camps in 2011.

  4. See for example, Lewis, Ioan (1961), A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa (New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers).

  5. See Goldsmith, Paul (1997), ‘The Somali Impact on Kenya: The View from Outside the Camps’, in Hussein Adam and Richard Ford (eds), Mending Rips in the Sky: Options for Somali Communities in the 21st Century (Lawrenceville, The Red Sea Press) pp. 461–483; Ikanda, Fred (2018), ‘Forging Associations across Multiple Spaces: How Somali Kinship Practices Sustain the Existence of the Dadaab Camps in Kenya’, in Schmidt, J.D. et al (eds), Refugees and Forced Migration in the Horn and Eastern Africa: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities (Cham, Springer).

  6. Nuradin Dirie (2012), “Somalia: Far from a Failed State”? BBC News Africa. 20 February.

  7. “Kenya to Target al-Shabaab Sympathisers in Nairobi”, BBC News Africa, 20 October 2011 Externer Link: (accessed: 8-5-2020); “Renounce Violence and We’ll Negotiate, Kenya Tells Shabaab,” Daily Nation, 20th October, 2011. See also Macharia Gaitho (2011), “If the Head of the Snake Is Right Here in Eastleigh, Why Did We Go to Somalia?” Daily Nation, 24 October Externer Link: (accessed: 8-5-2020).

  8. Amnesty International (2014), ‘Somalis Are Scapegoats in Kenya’s Counter-terror Crackdown’ Externer Link: (accessed: 12-5-2020).

  9. The Somali guerrilla fighters were called "shifta" by the Kenyan government, which means bandit.

  10. Hyndman, Jennifer (1996), Geographies of Displacement: Gender, Culture and Power in UNHCR Camps, Kenya (PhD Thesis, The University of British Columbia).

  11. CASA Consulting (2001), Evaluation of the Dadaab Firewood Project (Geneva, UNHCR).

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ikanda, Fred (2014), Kinship, Hospitality and Humanitarianism: Locals and Refugees in Northeastern Kenya (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge).


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Dr. Fred Nyongesa Ikanda is a Senior lecturer in the department of sociology and anthropology at Maseno University in Kenya. He has published extensively on refugee and migration issues. His current research focuses on kinship, religion, and gender relations in the Dadaab refugee camps.