It's been 5 years since I last visited the Dadaab refugee camps, in the remote desert region of north-eastern Kenya, to report on the influx of new arrivals fleeing from yet another cycle of violence and conflict in southern Somalia. Already then the camps were home to 180,000+ refugees and were struggling to accommodate the growing numbers still crossing the porous border on foot in search of asylum and better livelihoods.
Today Dadaab is officially the largest refugee destination in the world, with a 463,000 and growing population - 10,000 of whom were born in the camps to parents who were also born there. For those 3rd generation refugees, there can be no easy distinction between home and exile.
On the 21st of February, UNHCR announced the 20th anniversary of the Dadaab camps. Created in 1991 following the collapse of the Said Barre regime in Somalia, a combination of civil war, botched interventions, drought and famine have created one of the worlds worst humanitarian situations that only seems to be getting worse.
But the three sprawling settlements that make up the Dadaab complex hardly resembled the post-war image of a mass exodus of homeless people lacking even basic shelter. The most established areas seemed more like miniature towns with their main roads, shops, makeshift adobe houses latched together with recycled materials advertising a colourful mix of donor brands. It shocked me to discover that people in the camps had livelihoods, businesses and even travelled – albeit illegally - down to Nairobi and back to visit relatives.
For most people I met in the camps, any suggestion of eventual return to Somalia seemed ludicrous. “Why would you wish to return to the nightmare you have just woken up from,” one lady I interviewed put it back to me. Why indeed. But for the young born-refugee generation, most who have done the Kenyan curriculum but cannot pursue any higher education, life in the camps holds little prospect.
Recently one of the main humanitarian agencies currently operating in Dadaab contacted us about deploying Freedom Fone to relay critical information around food, water, sanitation and other service delivery in the camps.
This got me thinking. Considering most refugees I met back in 2007 already owned mobile phones, using Freedom Fone to provide localised, voice-based communications around service provision makes a lot of sense. However, on it's own there will be challenges. Most evidently the call cost problem meaning that callers would have to foot their own bill to access this service. So if the information is not relevant enough the service could easily fall on its face. Also mobile reception may not be widespread in the area.
However, deploying Freedom Fone with, for example, Village Telco to create a free community telephone network that doesn't rely on standard mobile operators could be an interesting solution. Village Telco have built a low cost device they call a Mesh Potato that connects with similar devices to create your very own, toll free network.
These devices could be set up like public booths around important community centres in the refugee camp and effectively create a wireless network for anyone to connect to and reach a Freedom Fone service that will provide real time, updated information around services. Potentially, one could create various Freedom Fone services for clinics, schools, latest news from the camp, even music and entertainment. And all for free for anyone within the community.
As I write international actors are gathering in London to discuss more military solutions to an already protracted conflict in Somalia while the security situation has become increasingly worse in the camps. Kenya's recent intervention in Somalia has only heightened tensions between camp residents and local authorities and these hostilities make easy recruiting conditions for the Al-Shabaab insurgents battling back across the border.
The kidnapping of three aid workers last autumn and more recently the killing of two refugee leaders and several Kenyan policemen have made it increasingly challenging for aid agencies to opperate freely in the camps. With more security restrictions on movement around the camps, it is becoming more difficult to deliver life-saving assistance such as food and water distribution, health care and the running of schools.
However, it is the effective delivery of these services that is going to improve the lives of refugees not a bigoted security presence to provide safe passege for the next visiting celebrity. Such services will in turn improve the future prospects of the younger, dispossessed generation while make their present more of a home away from home.