Dadaab: 5 facts about the world’s biggest refugee camp in Kenya

By Ninja Taprogge, CARE Emergency Communications Officer in Dadaab

More than 275,000 refugees (UNHCR) are living in Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world in Kenya. Here is what you need to know:

1. Dadaab is not a usual refugee camp, it has five sectors and is more like a small city.

Established in 1991, Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world. Originally constructed for 90,000 people fleeing civil war in Somalia, the camp would eventually host over 460,000 refugees during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in East Africa in 2011. Today, more than 275,000 refugees live in five camps, around 95 per cent from Somalia and the rest from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burundi and Uganda among others. Each of the camps is divided into different blocks according to nationality. The two biggest camps are Hagadera and Dagahaley with a population of nearly 150,000 followed by Ifo and the two newest camps Ifo II and Kambioos established in 2011. Throughout the camps refugees have their own markets where they can buy fruit, rice or sugar to upgrade their monthly food rations distributed by CARE and other aid agencies or spend what little money they have on clothes, mobile phones and other daily necessities.

2. Refugees don’t just receive support, they improve their own communities.

At the beginning of each month, refugees receive a food package including maize, sorghum and mobile phone e-vouchers for food called “Bamba Chakula,” which they can use to buy fruit and vegetables at registered market stalls in their camps, giving them a choice in what they eat. Most of the market stalls are owned by refugees. They earn their own money to make a better living for their families. But it is not only a job as a market stall owner that enables refugees to pay for milk and meat; it is also humanitarian organizations that employ refugees. CARE has handed the day-to-day running of the camp over to refugees. With support from ECHO, refugees have been trained in leadership and technical skills to maintain water pumps and provide counselling services. Around 1,600 people are supporting CARE’s work in the camps, as teachers at primary schools or building latrines and monitoring water distribution points. Most importantly, refugees are also involved in improving humanitarian operations and are encouraged to hand in complaints or positive feedback through specific post boxes.

3. Kids are going to school and it’s girls lives that have improved the most.

When Dadaab was first created, only five per cent of girls living in the camp attended school on a regular basis. For the past 25 years, CARE has been working closely with women and girls to empower them and shift cultural norms, and has helped bring about major change in the refugee population – especially in terms of girls' education. Today, nearly 14,000 students are attending CARE-run schools and classrooms are almost completely gender balanced. Girls like Makhdis (pictured above) have made tremendous progress over the years. Makhdis attended one of seven CARE primary schools in Dagahaley, participated in CARE teacher trainings, and is now working as an English teacher at her former school.

4. It is not all about water and food, it is about logistics too.

People who are living in Dadaab fled war or drought without having the chance to take much of their belongings with them. Providing clean and safe water as well as food is very important to ensure they can survive. This is no easy task. Dadaab sits in northeastern Kenya, surrounded by desert and requires a significant logistical operation to transport relief items. Sand clogs engines and vehicles need to be regularly serviced. The CARE Mechanical Service Unit maintained more than 300 UN, NGO and police cars in the past months, and also provides technical advice in terms of vehicle and equipment specifications during procurement for all of the agencies working in the refugee camp.

5. It is not only refugees who have been living in Dadaab for years.

Some of the refugees living in Dadaab have been there for over 25 years, since the camp was established in 1991. But it is not only refugees that call Dadaab home. It is also humanitarians who have spent years in this remote area, working as program advisors, mechanics or administration and logistics officers.

“I have dedicated my life to refugees in Dadaab,” says Jacob Ochiel, a CARE assistant logistics officer, who joined the camp more than six years ago. “By providing essential services in transport, distributions and warehousing, I support those displaced by war and conflict. I have enjoyed being in company with the people of Dadaab, sharing their stories and giving them a glimpse of hope for their future.”

Learn more about CARE's work with refugees and how you can help.