The hellhole that refugees are forced to call home
Published by The Observer (7th February, 2016)
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (Portobello)
Guled was a slight boy, orphaned in his teens and living on his wits in Mogadishu, a city reduced to ruins by years of interminable war. He lived with his sister and a swelling group of other orphans, fleeing from their home when mortars came too close. Then one day five gunmen swathed in black turned up at his classroom and press-ganged him into al-Shabaab – one of 2,000 children kidnapped that year in Somalia.
Soon he was being sent out on patrols by boy soldiers to exert sharia law on the streets. Shopkeepers open at the wrong time were beaten, smokers had cigarettes stubbed out on their faces, men with music on their phones forced to swallow sim cards. On one occasion, they found two young women shopping during prayer time and whipped them; 16-year-old Guled hid his tears after seeing one was the quiet girl he secretly married weeks earlier.
These are the sort of reasons why millions of people end up as refugees. Guled and his wife, Maryam, are among the lives chronicled in this outstanding glimpse into the shattered and insecure lives of those on the frontline of the global migration crisis. They end up in Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee camp, which is a place of abuse, brutality, hunger and fear – supposedly fed and protected by the United Nations.
Visiting the camp three years ago, I met Ben Rawlence, a former Human Rights Watch researcher who spent the best part of five years patiently documenting life inside this teeming, sprawling and chaotic camp in north-eastern Kenya. The result is City of Thorns, a superb work that highlights the essential humanity of those faceless masses buffeted by events and desperately seeking salvation in one of the world’s most troubled spots.
Guled is a chancer who lives for football and his beloved Manchester United. Tawane is a noble youth leader, who struggles desperately to deliver services after fearful aid agencies withdraw from rising violence and friends flee or win the prize of resettlement. Kheyro is an ambitious girl who works hard and becomes a teacher. Yet despite the focus on such lives, the author’s skill lies less in the pen portraits, which sometimes feel too sketchy, than in capturing the intricate detail of daily life in such a harsh environment.
Dadaab means ‘the rocky, hard place’, an apt description for its residents fleeing civil war and religious extremists, only to find themselves caught and often crushed in a lawless community. Politicians get rich from smuggling, drunken police rape and pillage at will, security guards extract bribes, clan and religious tensions explode, suspected villains are lynched in the street. One police chief is shifted after his grotesque corruption becomes too overt; his successor is sacked after a month for being too clean and efficient. ‘This is Kenya: we can rape you if we want,’ another officer warns a woman.
The camp was created 25 years ago to hold 90,000 Somalians; it has since expanded to hold around half a million people from several nations in a semi-permanent metropolis, for all the Kenyan government’s recent talk of closure. A generation of children has been born and raised, knowing nothing else but scrapping for survival, while businesses and marriages begin and all too often end. One woman is divorced after her husband discovers she is secretly having contraceptive injections. ‘I am not going to give birth in this fucking refugee camp,’ she tells him.
Such are the strains many inmates spend their nights in restless fear. One almost Shakespearean tragedy is the author’s tale of a Sudanese Christian man – another former child solder – and his Somalian Muslim wife, threatened to such an extent they fear their baby will be killed at birth. They end up fighting after she confirms the fears of conservative elders by chewing khat, drinking alcohol and neglecting their daughter.
Rawlence skilfully frames such stories within wider political currents: empty declarations at peace conferences, the shopping centre slaughter at Westgate, watching as Kenya’s invasion of Somalia ratchets up pressures while boosting profits for hideously corrupt local politicians. Although the backdrop is unremittingly bleak, the camp crackles with energy as Rawlence gives welcome insight into the reality of life for people trapped at the very bottom of global society. It is, above all, a sobering reminder of the lottery of birth.
This is a highly readable book. It is also a damning indictment of the hypocrisy behind camps, which offer such a pat solution to refugee crises for aid agencies and politicians. ‘’The geography of a refugee camp is about two things: visibility and control – the same principles that guide a prison,’ notes the author acidly. UN officials earn $9,000 a month, tax-free, safe in protected compounds, while refugees allowed to work under a deal with the host government do similar jobs but earn 100 times less. Thus a charitable idea degenerated into almost slave labour for those doing much of the humanitarian work.
Little wonder some set sights on risky escape to Europe; others head to Nairobi, where they are so routinely harassed, raped and ripped off, many return to Dadaab. One study found half al-Shabaab recruits motivated by police brutality. Rawlence is no misty-eyed romantic as he reports on the trade in ration cards, the rewriting of refugee stories, the industry springing up to broker resettlement slots, the war criminals ending up on western streets – even the attraction of British child benefit. Yet such is the disparity between us and ‘them’ that as one UN lawyer says: ‘If I can get one person resettled, I have helped 500.’ These are stories that need to be heard.