A Snapshot: Refugee Camp Life in Kenya


The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide reached nearly 60 million people in mid-2014. Half of these are children, and many are forced to travel alone or in larger groups without their family. This highest number ever recorded in history reflects a sweeping despair and desperation as families are forced to flee war, wanton brutality, instability, persecution, and rising hopelessness to be able to earn a living and educate their children.

Among these, the UN recognized 13.4 million as refugees by the end of 2014. Refugees are defined and protected under international law as persons “fleeing armed conflict or persecution.” Many live in camps, like the Kakuma Refuge Camp, which is located in the northwestern region of Kenya and houses nearly 180,000 people.

The largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, houses over 300,000 refugees. Dadaab is based on five refugee camps located in eastern Kenya near the Somali border. These camps were created in 1991 to assist refugees from the war in Sudan and Somalia, but they now house refugees from Ethiopia, Congo, and South Sudan, to name a few.

Typically, living conditions are incredibly harsh in the camps and due to the increasing number of refugees, the camps become overcrowded and some refugees live in tents and under plastic sheeting. The heat from the sun is scorching in the harsh desert climate in both locations. Although there is usually a slight breeze, it does not help as it only reinforces the fiery feeling.

The government of Kenya works closely with humanitarian organizations to provide shelter, health care, food, and education for those who live there. Some time ago, the camps implemented a biometric system to more accurately keep track of the identities of camp residents, particularly during food distribution, which occurs twice per month. In Kakuma, refugees line up and wait for hours at the distribution centers in order to be able to collect their food. Although some refugees are able to open shops, most are completely dependent on the food and services provided for them in the camp. As there are few, if any, opportunities for employment, accurate family sizes and correct identities are important during the distribution process to ensure that everyone receives their fair share. The transition to a computerized biometric system helps prevent fraud and protects refugees, particularly from the potential for lost, stolen, or altered ration cards, as the old system relied solely on paper cards and was inefficient.

Education is crucial for change and while not all children attend school, many of them do. There are both primary and secondary schools in the camps, as well as vocational schools for adults to further their education, hopefully providing them with better opportunities. Many children want to attend school and be able to create better opportunities for themselves and their families. The only hope to create a life outside of the camp is through education. The ability to be able to read and write is crucial so many families push their children to go to school. In both Kakuma and Dadaab there are hospitals and health clinics that provide basic services.

Refugees flee to the camps seeking protection and the chance to rebuild their lives in order to have a better future. One major concern is that there are many refugees who are born in the camp and many more continue to come. Due to continuing conflicts in the region, many refugees cannot return home. It is important that long term, sustainable solutions are created to provide some sort of future for them. If not, then we risk creating a caste of permanently displaced people, eternally dependent on outside aid.

Kanava International