What we can learn from the Somali refugee crisis

A UNHCR emergency response coordinator gives directions during the construction of the Ifo extension camp at the Dadaab refugee complex. What lessons learned and good practices from the Somali refugee crisis could help inform the international response to the refugee situation unfolding today? Photo by: B. Bannon / UNHCR

In recent months, news images and reports have been fixated on asylum seekers fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries to find refuge in Europe. But while this latest crisis might appear unique in its scale and urgency, the world has faced other waves of displacement that could help inform the international response to the refugee situation unfolding today.

Dubbed “one of the most complex crises in recent history,” Somalia has been in a state of turmoil ever since strongman Mohamed Siad Barre fled the country in 1991. Almost 25 years later, more than 1 million Somali people remain stranded in the Horn of Africa — the third largest refugee population after Afghans and Syrians according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. With 330,000 Somali refugees, the majority of whom cannot return home, the remote subregion of Dadaab in northeastern Kenya has become the world’s largest and oldest refugee complex.

So what can we learn from the case of Somali refugees and their protracted exile in Kenya? Underlining the importance of embedding refugee populations in economies and societies, three observations stand out as particularly instructive.

1. Teach refugees how to succeed wherever they settle.

After more than two decades of humanitarian assistance to Somali refugees, donor fatigue has settled in, forcing a growing number of agencies — including well-known organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Food Program — to either pull out or cut back aid.

In an effort to avoid humanitarian aid dependence and ultimately reintegrate refugees into society, the humanitarian community in Dadaab has developed a variety of economic activities, ranging from mechanics and carpentry to hairdressing and agriculture. But these were often one-off activities with limited funding and follow-up.

Under the leadership of UNHCR, organizations operating in Dadaab are now focused on developing strategic, comprehensive livelihood programs that would enable refugees “to cope, adapt and thrive wherever they settle.” This entails prioritizing job and life skills that refugees could practice in many settings in the region — whether they remain in Dadaab, resettle somewhere else in Kenya, or move back to Somalia. The ambitious shift in approach, however, doesn’t come without its own challenges.

A recent study published by the Danish Refugee Council revealed that vocational training sessions seldom match the skills and aspirations of refugees with employment opportunities available in the region. Humanitarian organizations also lack the sufficient know-how and staff on the ground to plan and implement effective livelihood programs.

Growing recognition of such gaps has set some encouraging trends in motion, like the mapping of labor markets in Kenya and Somalia to help design relevant employment and training strategies for Dadaab residents. A recent market assessment revealed promising market value chains in Dadaab and its surroundings, as well as marketable labor opportunities in Somalia. The findings will form the basis of a comprehensive, market-based livelihoods strategy and program that will be carried out by UNHCR and its partners in 2016 and beyond.

2. Connect refugees with market-based opportunities.

Innovation and the private sector are not a panacea for refugee crises. Working alongside international organizations and civil society, states and donor governments have a crucial role in providing safety nets to refugees.

But market-based opportunities can complement social protection by offering reliable self-sustenance options to refugees — and ultimately, by reconceiving refugee assistance as a developmental rather than an exclusively humanitarian challenge.

In Dadaab, where physical movements are restricted, information and communication technology is helping connect refugees with market-based opportunities through online work and digital entrepreneurship. For instance, the U.S.-based social enterprise Samasource is breaking down digital projects into small tasks and outsourcing these tasks to Dadaab refugees so they can learn critical technology skills and earn money.

Other organizations are assisting refugee students participating in vocational training courses by connecting them to actual business experiences. The Norwegian Refugee Council, for instance, is helping hundreds of Somali youths link up with small enterprises to find apprenticeship opportunities in the Dadaab refugee camps.

The global development community is also providing business start-up support to build the self-reliance of refugees. An important lesson learned within Dadaab is that access to start-up capital is crucial, but not sufficient: Factors such as peer coaching, financial planning, follow-up support and networks are equally important.

DRC is currently training 200 Dadaab residents on business management and providing them with startup funding to establish or expand their own business. They are also given the chance to meet traders and entrepreneurs active in the camps and host communities to receive practical advice and foster their own connections.

3. Go green.

Almost 25 years since it was first established, the Dadaab situation illustrates a broader issue that many refugee settlements struggle with: Environmental sustainability.

Any refugee settlement requires clean water, reliable energy and waste collection as basic requirements for its survival. But when refugee crises strike, environmental impact and sustainability often falls at the bottom of the list of priorities. Ad hoc solutions then persist for years — even when they are harmful and energy-intensive.

For decades, the livelihoods of Dadaab people have been crippled by cyclical droughts, erratic rainfall patterns, and rapid land degradation. Water shortages are widespread in the Dadaab refugee complex. Refugee families also depend on and perpetuate many expensive and polluting practices. It is estimated that each family living in the Dadaab refugee camps spends about $17.20 a month on diesel oil and energy, representing about 20 percent of an average family’s income.

Green innovations can also reduce costs for donors and implementers. A recent report by Chatham House found that the widespread installation of clean energy sources in refugee camps could help humanitarian agencies save millions of dollars — and reduce carbon emissions and deforestation.

After being successfully piloted by NRC, the largest solar-powered borehole in Africa now provides Dadaab with about 280,000 liters of water a day. The new system is not only environmentally friendly, it boasts low maintenance costs and enables savings of nearly 22,000 euros ($23,390) annually compared with diesel-powered water pumps.

Involving refugee and local communities in environmental activities is also fundamental to sustainable natural resource management. Recently, NRC partnered with Care International to establish a plastic waste recycling project in the Dadaab refugee complex, which provides local refugee associations with a means to earn an income by collecting waste materials and selling it to industrial manufacturers in major towns.

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About the author

  • Manola De Vos

    Manola De Vos is an Engagement Lead for Devex’s Analytics team in Manila. She leads and designs customized research and analysis for some of the world’s most well-respected organizations, providing the solutions and data they need to grow their partner base, work more efficiently, and drive lasting results. Prior to joining Devex, Manola worked in conflict analysis and political affairs for the United Nations, International Crisis Group and the EU.