Militarism and Policing

Dadaab Kenya: Policing the Refugee Camp

September 26, 2017

By Mohamed Abumaye

The Dadaab refugee camp, constructed in 1991 to be a temporary shelter for up to 90,000 refugees, ended up housing 300,000 refugees.

The Dadaab refugee camp, constructed in 1991 to be a temporary shelter for up to 90,000 refugees, ended up housing 300,000 refugees.

The Dadaab refugee camp, constructed in 1991 to be a temporary shelter for up to 90,000 refugees, ended up housing 300,000 refugees.1 As part of the prolonged refugee resettlement process, Somali refugees on average spent about five to ten years in Dadaab awaiting resettlement.2 As a result, even though the refugee camps were built as temporary shelters, they often became semi-permanent homes for refugees. The Kenyan state agreed to build the refugee camp in Dadaab, because it is located in one of the most arid and unlivable parts of Kenya.3 As a consequence, Somali refugees had to build a home out of a place not fit for human, an indication of how little value was placed on the lives of refugees in Kenya.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyper-ghetto by Eric Tang.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyper-ghetto by Eric Tang.

I utilize Eric Tang’s concept of hyper-ghetto, in his book Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyper-ghetto, to connect the refugee camp and the U.S. “ghetto” as spaces of confinement structured by regimes of social control. I argue that this regime of confinement links Somali refugees’ experience with state violence in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to their encounter with ongoing forms of police violence in San Diego. As an example of this linkage, Somali refugees in Dadaab were forced to carry I.D. to identify their refugee status to Kenya officials, and Somali youth in City Heights under curfew laws are required to carry I.D. at night to identify themselves to the city police.4 These two instances epitomize the surveillance state. According to the Refugee Act in Kenya Law: “Every refugee and asylum seeker shall— (a) be issued with a refugee identity card or pass in the prescribed form; and (b) be permitted to remain in Kenya in accordance with the provisions of this Act.”5 The refugee camp thus functions as a site of containment, where refugees’ movements are closely monitored not for the protection of refugees but as a way to contain the population. If a Somali refugee wanted to leave the camps, they needed approval from UNHCR officials. The Refugee Act states “An asylum seeker or a refugee may apply to the Commissioner, through the refugee camp officer, for permission to travel outside a designated area.”6 Refugees who wanted to leave the camps for shopping or for work, were often harassed and forced to pay bribes to Kenyan police.7 According to an Al-Jazeera article that documents the story of one refugee’s encounter with the Kenya police: “The policeman alleged my refugee identity card had expired. The truth is that it was still valid. He asked for a bribe. I had 1,000 shillings, equivalent to $12.”8

The legal categorization of Somalis as refugees meant that Somalis were barred from establishing residency or citizenship in Kenya, and denied the protections that come with citizenship.9 As a result, Somalis were regularly attacked by and forced to pay bribes to the Kenyan police, particularly if they wanted to leave the camps for shopping or for work. As stateless people, refugees had limited capacity to resist this violence because they did not have any means of legal redress. An investigative report by Human Rights Watch entitled “Welcome to Kenya: Police Abuse of Somali Refugees” explains this disturbing trend: “Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of Somali refugees who described how police patrolling the border areas near Liboi had stopped their vehicles—carrying an average of around 25 women, children, and men—to extort money from them in exchange for free passage to the camps. Refugees told Human Rights Watch that police sometimes held young children hostage to force their parents to pay money to secure their release”.10 This police abuse accentuated the extent to which state violence structured Somali refugee life. To survive these structures of state violence, Somalis developed a keen distrust of state agents. This distrust of the state and humanitarian agents was a necessary tool of survival for refugees who rightly saw state agents as people who at best ignored the needs of refugees and at worst regularly exploited refugees for profit. This type of exploitation is most highlighted by the actions of the Kenyan police. The Kenyan government did little to regulate police abuse of refugees.11 As a result, refugees developed specific strategies to circumvent police violence, such as sharing information with each other about the location of upcoming police strikes.


See article by Gary Simpson published in “The Standard” that documents how the Dadaab camp was only built to house 90,000 refugees.


See UNHCR document titled “UNHCR Refugee Trends 2015” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2015


See City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence


See document “Thirty-Six Years of Crime in the San Diego Region: 1980 Through 2015” by the Criminal Justice Research Division




An Al Jazeera article highlights these bribes.


See article on this website.



See website for more information about the abuses that Somali refugees suffered at the hands of police.


See article on “All Africa” that highlights the ways in which UNHCR and Refugee collude to oppress refugees.


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