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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

Socio-Economic Impact of Refugees on the Areas
Neighboring Camps: A Case Study of Kenya's
Refugee Camps

Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Menye, Kenyan Army


The Dadaab refugee camp complex in Kenya's North Eastern Province comprises the three camps of Dagahaley, Hagadera, and Ifo. This complex was established to accommodate about 270,000 predominantly Somali refugees, although it currently holds in excess of 450,000.1 In spite of extensive investments in sustaining the camps over the last 18 years, knowledge of their social, economic, and environmental impacts on the surrounding areas remains scant. As their presence has become more permanent, increased attention from donors, United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Government of Kenya has been focused on the provision of services in the areas around Dadaab.

Kenya is the main host country near the Horn of Africa that has received the most refugees from the internal conflict in Somalia. The general impact that refugees have on the receiving state include, but is not limited to, internal conflict, introduction of politically based issues, socio-economic challenges, resource scarcity, infrastructure inaccessibility, criminal activity, environmental degradation, and militarization of camps.2

The Current Problem

Somalis have lacked an effective central government since civil war broke out in 1991 after the ouster of President Siad Barre. Driven out of their homes by climatic factors and seemingly never-ending conflicts, tens of thousands of Somalis have been forced to flee across the borders to neighboring countries. In response, Kenya adopted an informal camp policy for refugees, restricting their movement to the limited confines of refugee camps that in most cases are located in the most remote, poor, hostile, and undesirable parts of the country.

The Dadaab refugee camp is located in one of the remotest parts of Kenya, which has the least fertile soil. The refugees live among the nomadic pastoralists, many of whom live in abject poverty. While the refugees receive international aid, the locals generally do not. This disparity causes an economic imbalance that has resulted in the host community being hostile and blaming its problems on the refugees. It also raises fundamental questions about human rights and equality, since the refugees, who receive free shelter, food, firewood, and health care, have better conditions than their hosts.

Resource Competition

Since the arrival of refugees to the Dadaab camp, the host community's already insufficient water supply has been severely affected. The locals argue that their women are forced to travel long distances to find water, resulting in health problems for them, such as back and chest pain. Lack of sufficient water, deforestation, and resultant soil erosion have threatened the food security of the locals, who depend on pasture and water for survival. The huge demands on the scarce local water resources give rise to friction within the local communities.

Moreover, refugees are often viewed as a security threat to the host community. For example, the Turkana tribesmen accuse the Dinka (Sudanese ethnic group) in the Kakuma refugee camp of raping their women and cutting down trees. There have also been numerous cases of cattle rustling. Some locals further argue that they have been attacked during the night and had their cattle stolen. This perceived threat forces the locals to acquire illegal arms and thus sets conditions for terrorist groups to take advantage of the poor conditions at the camp to lure young men into their organizations.

When refugees arrive at a camp, there is often a great demand for timber, wood, and poles for construction and cooking purposes, which puts a great strain on the timber resources of the local community. The Turkana, who host the refugees at Kakuma, are alarmed at the rate at which refugees cause deforestation. This anxiety causes frequent confrontations and fights between the local population and the refugees, because the hosts argue that their livestock largely depend on foraging and the trees that the refugees have cut down.

The combined demand for firewood and building materials from the camps and the host communities is very significant. Collecting firewood and building materials is undertaken by members of the host communities and camp populations alike, and both groups are engaged in buying and selling it. However, firewood harvesters based in the camps are largely responsible for commercially providing firewood to the camps. Good quality firewood is difficult to find close to the camps and nearby settlements, leaving only low-quality firewood for collection by women and children in the host communities.

As the distance to good firewood sources increases, the collection process is taken over by men using donkey carts; therefore, it has been commercialized. The demand for energy for household use is growing with the increasing population in the area as a whole. The local collection of firewood is becoming more laborious, and the potential for conflict is ever increasing.

Other Impacts

There have been mixed reports on the impact of refugees on local education. At the Kakuma refugee camp, refugees often have more opportunities for education than the locals. The refugees can go to local schools or they can attend one of the many schools in the refugee camp. However, the locals are not allowed to attend the schools in refugee camps. The host community suffers from poor quality education as compared to the refugees in refugee camps, since the refugees can access better teachers who, in most cases, come from urban areas or from foreign countries.

Refugees influence the local economy in a variety of other ways. In general, the increase in population results in an increased demand for products and goods, which raises prices and the cost of living in and around the refugee camp. The influx of refugees also increases job competition. At the Kakuma refugee camp, job competition is intense because NGOs tend to hire refugees, who work for less than the locals. This disparity in employment opportunities causes additional tension between refugees and the host communities.3

Additionally, the influx of a great number of refugees causes an increase in communicable infectious diseases in the surrounding areas. When this occurs, there is often a push for improving health sanitation services in the area. Locals are allowed to utilize the health services at some but not all refugee camps. Still, there are cases where refugees have better health services than the surrounding villages, which can lead to tension.

Pastoralists living along the borders neighboring the refugee camps lose their lives from increased cross-border, resource-based armed confrontations. Depleted livestock, limited pasture and water from the cumulative effect of cyclic drought, and the availability of small arms have resulted in an increase in pastoralists' cross-border movements that can trigger violent, armed cross-border conflict.

There are significant impacts on grazing and wildlife. Livestock from the camps impact grazing up to about 20 kilometers away from the camps, although grazing pressure and competition are negligible beyond this distance. Meanwhile, wildlife populations around Dadaab have been reduced as animals have migrated due to disturbance, having been forced out by competition with livestock for food or after having been hunted for their meat. Droughts have intensified competition between herbivores and domestic livestock, reducing the traditional prey of predators and forcing them to attack goats, sheep, and cattle instead, thereby creating a serious problem to the host communities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The socio-economic impacts of refugee camps are varied. From the refugee's perspective, they revolve around the desire to live a decent life, whereas locals who live close to the camps often view the refugees as intruders and as competitors for scarce resources, such as food, water, and wood fuel, as well as a cause of insecurity in the area close to the refugee camps. Drought, with its implications for water shortage and food insecurity, is currently the most significant climate-related hazard contributing to conflict and mass displacement. Cattle rustling incidents have also increased in the region as owners seek to restock herds that have been badly affected by the searing drought across East Africa.

In order to address these issues, the government of Kenya, with the assistance of NGOs and the international community, should make concerted efforts to mitigate the effects of drought in the region. Relocating the camps to more habitable areas is an option that may not be viable in the short term. Similarly, repatriating the refugees to their countries of origin could be a lasting solution; however, the conditions in Somalia that made them seek refuge still prevail, and many refugees would not want to go back. Therefore, an enduring solution is to empower the population around the camps to mitigate the effects of harsh weather and to reduce the perception that the "intruders" benefit from better facilities and resources.

The priority should be to provide sufficient potable water for both people and their animals. The dependence on wood fuel must be reduced, and an alternative form of energy should be made available - whether that is gas or possibly the abundant wind and solar power. Similarly, essential services, to include equal education opportunities, universal access to medical facilities and health care, and employment opportunities, must be available to all. The most certain and long-term solution is to resolve the Somalia conflict and create an elected government that is acceptable to all Somalis.


1. 2012 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees country operations profile - Kenya, Working environment. Available at Accessed 25 April 2012.

2. Gleditsch, Nils. P., Ragnhild Nordås and Idean Salehyan. (2007), "Climate Change" and Grigg-Saito, D., Och, S., Liang, S., Toof, R., & Silka, L. (2008), "Building on the strengths of a Cambodian refugee community through community-based outreach." Health Promotion Practice, 9, 415.

3. Montclos, M., and Kagwanja P., "Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socio-economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern Kenya." Journal of Refugees Studies.13.2(2000): 205-222. Accessed 21 April 2012 at


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