Life in the City of Thorns

‘These cities are growing. There are more of them. There are more and more people being born in them. In some respects, this is the future.’ Author Ben Rawlence shines a light on Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. 

By: /
January 11, 2016
An aerial picture shows a section of the Hagadera camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

What can the world’s largest refugee camp tell us about the current plight of refugees worldwide? As writer and researcher Ben Rawlence explains, the existence of these decades-old camps signals a breakdown in a refugee system that once worked much more efficiently, before countries started to push back against resettlement, leaving millions around the world in limbo.

In order to question current policy responses and to offer a more humanizing, alternative narrative, Rawlence’s new book City of Thorns brings to life nine stories from Dadaab, the Somali refugee camp in Kenya. He spoke to OpenCanada from New York before his talk Monday in Toronto.

Following refugee policy now for several years, do you think there has been a progression in the way we talk about the issue? How sophisticated has the response been over the past year?

Over the 10 years I’ve been covering refugees from the Horn of Africa, regardless of the discussion, the policy framework has narrowed so much and that’s why we have this current global refugee crisis.

The media seems to think it's a European crisis, Syrians are coming to Europe but actually there are 14 million people stuck in these protracted refugee situations all around the world and that number is growing, so the influx into Europe is one symptom but actually it is a symptom of a much bigger systemic crisis which is the break down in the former refugee regime.

So there is process that is supposed to be followed, that all nation-states of the UN have signed up to share the burden of refugees with this quota system, where people go to camps and then they wait and then they get resettled to other places if there’s no peace and they can’t go home. But the conversation about quotas within Europe and certainly in the United States, less so in Canada, these sort of politically motivated [conversations], throwing numbers around now, are really just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s not a serious engagement with the systemic problem.

Is the problem a lack of permanent solutions?

Accepting refugees for resettlement from Syria is a permanent solution for those people, but it's not addressing the systemic failure of the refugee system. So what we really need to happen is some kind of Marshall Plan where we realistically think about winding down these refugee camps — many of them are now getting to be 20 years old, 30 years old, in Darfur, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, leave alone the Middle East and the Palestinian situation — where all nations need to be taking many more people. Or we need to be transitioning to accepting that these [camps] are permanent and treating them as such and resourcing them as such, because 25 years of temporary solutions and emergency level, baseline healthcare and food is not a life, that’s a prison sentence and it’s not OK and it’s illegal under refugee law. What we’ve got at the moment, this kind of threadbare safety net for refugees, is illegal, is in the face of international law. 

What did exploring the issue in book form, specifically with these nine stories, allow?

The problem with reporting on humanitarian disasters is how to keep the word human in there — how to humanize it — and in a way we’re all a victim of the news cycle and the familiarity of these images. We all think we know what refugees look like, everybody sees lines of tents laid out in a hot place and we think we know what that is, but actually we don’t. And when Angelina Jolie leaves, there’s a whole life going on there, which we don’t capture [in reporting].

So what I’ve tried to do with this book by focusing very much on the up-close and personal lives of these individuals is to humanize the place, Dadaab, and also to connect the individual lives with the news agenda. So it’s very, very hard to appreciate the impact of all these policy discussions and of all of this media hysteria on individual lives but what I’ve tried to do over the three years as these lives unfold is to show the echo, the relationship between life on the ground and the decisions that are happening in other capitals, and how the policies are unfolding as well as the history of the region and so on.

In that respect I studied quite closely what John Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath where he got people to care about the Oklahomans by painting a vivid portrait of their lives and then he explained the context with these intercut chapters that had a more general focus. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with City of Thorns.

How much will readers recognize these as refugee stories, and how much detail might come as surprise or debunk any preconceived notions? Was the reaction similar for you when getting to know the camp?

To me the whole experience is fascinating which is why I wanted to write the book. I had no idea how anyone could live there or survive there. If it was me, I don’t know what I would have done but I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. The very fact that these people are able to cope and able to keep their human instincts in check, their instincts for freedom, and they are able to knuckle down and make a life there, amazed me and I wanted to see how they were actually managing to do it. 

What I hope will happen is that yes there are certain aspects that people will recognize — certainly the coming of the celebrities to the camp or the time of the famine, those are familiar tropes — but then what you get in the book is what’s going on in camp life which is very different… And the policy consequences of that, hopefully, as I start to outline in the prologue, is that if we understand how people live and what their concerns are, the idea that these refugees are waiting to be radicalized, waiting to be terrorists, quickly disappears. As soon as you understand the lives of any of these nine people in this camp, you realize how remote that idea is from their experience and how there is no way that would be something that they would want to do. So in this respect, the politics of the book, the focus on every day lives, is radical because that is the antithesis of this generalizing, stereotyping image.

A Somali refugee child carries her sibling at the Ifo camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

When a camp has been around for a long time, and children are born there, it brings up the question of where does a person belong. We tend to relate belonging to citizenship. Is that an angle in need of more discussion — the paths to citizenship or the idea that we are limited by our nationality and how arbitrary that can be? 

I think we are incredibly limited by our nationality and I think Dadaab poses a challenge to everybody really to how we think about ourselves in nation-states and what we think nation-states are for.

These cities are growing. There are more of them. There are more and more people being born in them. In some respects, this is the future. And I think when climate change hits in a big way, in 20 or 40 years' time, large parts of the globe are going to be inhabitable, the Sahel in Africa is going to be too hot, possibly London and Manhattan are going to be underwater, there will be large movements of people and we’re going to have to have to interrogate the idea of a nation.

Is a nation a set of laws, administered objectively by people who are elected fairly for the benefit of everybody, i.e. making refugee law work and respecting international law and allowing people to claim asylum and looking after them? Or are we going to retreat into these ghettos of nationalisms where nations are not so utilitarian but are much more emotional things where there are ‘us’ and ‘them’ and people who are allowed to be helped and people who are not allowed to be helped? 

"There will be large movements of people and we’re going to have to have to interrogate the idea of a nation."

Both of those ideas of a nation-state have pros and cons and most countries are struggling on a continuum but I think we’re going to need to move a lot further towards the liberal idea of a state, and away from the emotional, nationalistic idea of the nation. Less nation and more state, if you like, in order to cope with these vast movements of people. Because it’s going to be a massive challenge. The numbers on the ground now — a million in Europe? — it is going to be change compared to what’s coming. 

And yet at the same time, you mention a decreasing number of refugee resettlements. Do you think the connection is still lacking between that decreasing number and the fact that people are still migration even more dangerously because the option is not there for them to do so legally? 

That’s exactly right. And that’s exactly what’s missing from the current policy discussion. We haven’t woken up to that fact, we haven’t solved the underlying problem, and the underlying problem is that people are coming illegally because the legal route is blocked.

You have now big refugee camps being built in Jordan and they are empty because the Syrians are learning the lesson in places like Dadaab; they know that if you go to a refugee camp, you go to fester and you’re not going anywhere. So they are choosing instead to find whatever money they can and go to Europe. The reason you are getting more Syrians is because there are more displaced but also Syria is much closer to Europe. It costs around US$2,000 to traffic yourself illegally to Europe from Syria. From Somalia, it costs around US$10,000. The only thing stopping all those people in Dadaab and millions of other Somali from across the region from coming to Europe is that they can’t afford it.

On your Toronto stop with this book tour, the question will likely come up — what is your view on Canada's resettlement efforts, specifically the target of 25,00 refugees?

I think the focus on numbers is misguided because I think what we need is a much more dynamic, ongoing, fluid system that can respond appropriately to the crisis in the pipeline. And it’s not fair — David Cameron, I rarely agree with him, but I agree with him that it’s not fair that the people who illegally make it to Europe are then shared around among the countries in Europe and they gain a quick route to citizenship, whilst the people who abided by the law and waited in the refugee camps in the region are still there.

What refugees need is confidence in the process and if you establish confidence in the process, you won’t need these knee-jerk numbers about whether or not we are responding adequately because there will be an algorithm; there will be a fair sharing of the burden based on how much everybody contributes and how many they take and where people want to go. There will be a process as there was once.

The UNHCR was set up after World War Two to solve precisely this problem and manage it fairly and it has a done a pretty good job until the 1990s. But since the 1990s, rich countries have turned down the numbers and don’t want the numbers coming in. And that means that these camps have grown and grown and grown. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.