Which way out of the camps for Somalia’s young refugees?

“Imagine that I have never been outside this camp. And I am 20-years-old. I have been here, grew up here and I am going to stay here perhaps forever,” said Abdi, who has lived in Hagadera refugee camp in northern Kenya since 1992.

He considers himself luckier than other young people in the Dadaab camps in northeast Kenya: after finishing secondary school, he found a job with the international NGO, CARE, which operates in the camp. He is paid 3,500 Kenyan shillings a month - roughly US $50. The great majority of his former classmates are unemployed.

The lack of employment opportunities in refugee camps is one of the major causes of frustration. The youth are the most affected, feeling trapped with few opportunities to escape. Paradoxically, the international organisations and NGOs provide good quality education for refugees, but they are unable to use their acquired skills within the camps.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the camps contain around 150,000 refugees, 40- to 45,000 of them young people aged between 15 and 24 years.

Somali nationals make up 97.5 percent of the refugee population, with rest being Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese. The majority of asylum seekers arrived in 1991 and 1992, during the civil war that ravaged Somalia after the overthrow of Siad Barre’s military government.

“We are planning to address this, but at the moment there isn’t any youth centre or youth-specific policy in the camps. The new generation is growing fast, and the fact that there aren’t job opportunities readily available for them might be a problem in the future,” said Susanna Martinez, head of Community Services at UNHCR.

Refugees have continued to trickle into the camps, seeking safety and protection. The unrelenting insecurity in their homeland has prevented their return home, and has forced them to live in a situation of permanent emergency and displacement.

Many of the youth living in the camps have been there most of their lives. The life of a refugee has become the norm for them, but they have not forgotten that what they really want are the same rights enjoyed by their peers.

“I sincerely don’t understand why we cannot move. The right of free movement is a human right for everybody. We don’t get it, and it is not fair. The Kenyan government doesn’t allow us to leave the camps for fear of refugees smuggling arms and drugs from Somalia. But we are just refugees, we don’t even have food. How can we have arms?” says Yusuf, 17.

Like other African governments hosting refugees, the Kenyan government maintains and enforces a strict encampment policy towards refugees. They are not allowed to integrate with the local community, leave or work outside the camps, or even farm the land around their settlement.

The three camps of Hagadera, Ifo and Daghaley, were established between 1991 and 1993. A decade and a half later there is no sign that the refugees will be able leave any time soon. This creates a problem for the refugees as the UNHCR and NGOs such as CARE are unable to implement permanent development programmes due to the very nature of a refugee camp’s temporary status.

As a result, the camps in Dadaab have won the gloomy title of “oldest refugee settlement in the world”.

The double edge sword of education

According to CARE, which runs and manages the education programme, there are 17 primary and three secondary schools in the Dadaab camps, serving 33,188 students.

The provision of free schooling has been well received by the refugees: basic primary education enrolment has more than trebled in the last 12 years. The proportion of girls going to school, in certain cases up to the end of secondary school, has risen consistently despite the traditional cultural barriers faced by Somali women at home.

Education has become the primary reason why people remain at the camps.

“If you go to the blocks now and ask people, why you are here? The most probable answer will be that the only reason is because there is free education and at least the children are learning.”

“Education is important because it teaches you everything, and makes you aware of what is happening in your society,” said a secondary school graduate.

A student at Hagadera secondary school said, “Here we do the Kenyan curriculum, and when there are the final examinations, we do compete with all the other students in Kenya. But we don’t have the same facilities, we don’t have enough desks and few books and no electricity. Sometimes at night we cannot go to school because there is the curfew and at home we have no lamps.”

Despite the drawbacks, there is the occasional success story.

”We had a bright guy here who managed to score eighth in the whole of Kenya at GCSE. He later won a Fulbright Scholarship to go to study at Princeton, in the US, and he is performing very well there,” said Mohamed Qazilbash, senior programme manager at CARE.

Some refugees at the camps get better schooling, better health facilities, and sometimes better nutrition than their fellow nationals at home. This allows them to become an “educated elite” which could see them one day take their skills home and help in the reconstruction of their country.

For this to happen, CARE – in partnership with the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation - has started a programme known as Emerging Youth Leadership (EYL). EYL aims to enhance the skills of the youth growing up in camps, who one day might become the future leaders of their country.

“Because one starts to realise that there is so much potential and so much thirst and hunger to achieve something, that if it can be channelled in a positive and constructive way, literally these young boys and girls can bring tremendous benefits, not only to their own society and their own culture and country of origin, but also to a greater degree to the international society they are members of,” commented a humanitarian worker involved in the project.

While the provision of education for young people can be considered something of a success, this very success can create problems.

“Every year there are more than 2,000 primary school children who fail to pass to the secondary exam and swell the ranks of the unemployed. To these you can add the 360 secondary students that complete the final grades every year, without being able to proceed to further education,” said CARE’s report on education in the camps.

The unemployment problem within the camps is hard to resolve. Although vocational training is also offered, there are simply not enough jobs to go round. Most of the refugees dream of returning to a safe Somalia, tired of waiting in the camps.

“I‘ve stayed in the camp for 11 years and now I am about to finish grade four in secondary school. I think that after that I will just go somewhere else. Perhaps I might go back to Somalia, my country, without even waiting for repatriation. There is not peace there, but at least there is a life. If you manage not to be killed or robbed, then you can have a normal life there,” said 17-year-old refugee, Abdi.

There is some anger towards the international organisations working in the camps, as they are seen as responsible for the long-lasting suffering, and the absence of prospects.

“What the UNHCR has been doing is to find short-term solutions for a very long time. We need a real solution, not another emergency one,” said Mohammed, 24.

In the meantime, young people are starting to organise themselves.

“We have many youth groups here in the camps. The main ones are the Children Rights Group, which advocates for the rights of orphans; the Wishing Peace Group, which provides conflict resolution skills; and the Anti-Female Genital Cutting movement,” said Mohammed, chairman of the Wishing Peace Group.

The Anti-FGC campaign is one of the major successes among the youth organisations in the camps. Awareness of the risks of female genital mutilation is widespread.

The way out of the camps

In her article on the resettlement dreams of young Somalis in refugee camps, Cindy Horst notes, “In Somalia, travel is considered to be a learning process and a source of wisdom. Young men are encouraged to travel in order to gain education and life experience, as a man who has travelled, a wayo’arag, is one who knows a great deal, has seen things, has lived.”

The inability to leave weighs heavily on the camps’ youth. They are aware that they are missing out on experiences that they will only be able to have if offered a resettlement plan. In the absence of any viable permanent solution to their displacement, youths are left with few concrete choices and a lot of unresolved questions.

At the moment, there can be no return to Somalia, amid the ongoing conflict between the country’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

“Given the current situation, the threat of them being recruited to join the Islamic Courts’ militia is more and more a real one,” commented one of the CARE programme managers.

CPM/Cmh/jm

[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]