In northeastern Kenya, some 400 kilometres from a pristine coastline and a short drive from the porous border with Somalia, is an empty community. The homes have been torn down, the market abandoned. An old tea shop is barricaded with branches of prickly mesquite, known locally as mathenge. There’s a rustling of tarpaulins strapped to rickety stalls, where fruit-and-vegetable sellers or those with used clothing ran their shops. Old plastic bottles have turned a deep grey from months of dust and dirt. Herders and their cattle occasionally pass through—some of the few visitors since this site officially closed, last spring.

Behind the former market, there are subtle memories of the camp that once held more than 60,000 people. Most of its makeshift dwellings are now lines etched in the sand or, in some cases, stony ledges where residents who could afford it constructed more stable shelters. Here and there are the remnants of piles of garbage that were set on fire. The flames seem to have spared some items: a single plastic shoe, a reusable shopping bag, a piece of fabric marked “unhcr,” a small T-shirt.

This was once Ifo 2, a camp within the Dadaab refugee complex—one of the largest in the world, sheltering nearly half a million people at its peak population. Ifo, the first camp in Dadaab, which was named for a nearby town, opened in 1991, when civil war broke out in neighbouring Somalia. For much of that decade, rival clans jostled for power and resources in a country whose borders were carved from a former British protectorate and an Italian colony. The fighting disrupted farming and animal herding, leaving many without enough food. It displaced some residents internally while others fled to neighbouring countries. Many of those who crossed the border into Kenya have stayed in Dadaab camps for decades, with children and grandchildren born there.

But it isn’t simply war that many are running from. Ifo 2 opened, in 2011, to accommodate an influx of people displaced because of a prolonged and merciless dry season that killed their cattle and vegetation and evaporated water sources. It forced tens of thousands of pastoralists—the preferred local term for herders—across the border. This drought was later one of the first in the world to be partially linked to anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change; those who fled it may be considered one of the first waves of climate migrants in modern history. And, as many of their experiences—and Ifo 2’s recent closure—suggest, much of the world isn’t yet ready for them.

Moga Hassan Ahmed has been forced to flee his home twice. A pastoralist who herded cattle, he first left Somalia as the war broke out in 1991. He crossed the border into Kenya and registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr), receiving food and supplies to build a house. He’s now spent decades in a country not his own. Somalia is slowly recovering from war, but instability remains. Though a federal government took power in 2012, it has struggled to maintain control in the face of al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that rose in the mid-2000s and made significant territorial advances in the region.

Around 2011, Ahmed began thinking about returning to his hometown. He had separated from his wife, whom he’d met in Dadaab. After going hungry during a period when the unhcr struggled to provide refugees with enough rations, one of their sons hanged himself from a tree. Another son has gone back to Somalia, and Ahmed says he “could be at risk,” a subtle way of implying that his son may have joined al-Shabaab. The pain of those losses was part of why, in 2016, Ahmed decided to accept the unhcr’s offer of repatriation. In return for leaving Dadaab—and, in his case, giving up his refugee status—Ahmed would receive several hundred dollars from the unhcr and assistance returning to his home region. By the agency’s standards, the areas near Kismayo, the southern port city Ahmed first relocated to, were considered secure: Somali and Kenyan military forces had regained control of much of the area by then.

But, though the region Ahmed had fled nearly two decades earlier was now more politically stable, he soon realized he couldn’t see a future there. The land was dry, and he learned his thirty cattle, which had been looked after in Somalia while he was in Kenya, had all died from heat and starvation. He lasted about a month before moving to Dhobley, a town along the Somalia-Kenya border. The situation there was the same. “I really loved my country, and I thought my country had improved in terms of security,” he told me in an interview late last August. “When I went back there, it was with a heart of patriotism.” But, as animals died and people starved, he had no choice but to return to Dadaab.

Somalia’s 2011 drought was part of a pattern of extreme weather events, says Abubakr Salih Babiker, a climate scientist with the igad Climate Prediction and Application Centre (icpac)—part of a trade block of eight East African countries, including Somalia and Kenya. Babiker says there’s a link between rising temperatures in the western section of the Indian Ocean, which is warming at a faster rate than any other part of the tropical ocean system, and unusually harsh events in East Africa, including prolonged dry periods followed by longer and heavier rainy seasons. Tropical cyclones—such as the two powerful ones that hit Mozambique last year, causing widespread flooding and destruction of homes—and the locust swarms threatening crops in the region this past spring are also linked. “There is a pattern here,” he says. “What used to be rare [is] not rare anymore.”

It took a few years after 2011 for three researchers from the United Kingdom to announce, in a report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, that the drought in East Africa could be attributed in part to climate change. It was an important addition to the scientific literature: until then, it had been difficult to prove a link between greenhouse gas emissions and these types of natural disasters, which have led to widespread displacement and exacerbated refugee crises. Without such evidence, governments can easily dismiss the population movement as temporary or seasonal: the disaster will pass, the refugee camps will close, the people can go home. As it becomes impossible to ignore how climate change is contributing to mass displacement, governments may be forced to grapple with the reality that the affected refugees within their borders, and the temporary camps that house them, may have to stay there permanently.

A woman in an orange hijab, staring out of an open window in a metal structure.
Khatra Aden came to Dadaab in 2011. She left Somalia because of a prolonged drought.

On the surface, at least, countries like Canada have considered the issue. A 2010 government report cited data suggesting that, by 2050, anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change. (A 2018 World Bank report looking at sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America estimated that number could exceed 140 million.) Canada is also a signatory to the 2010 Cancun Agreements, which, aside from committing countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, addressed the issue of displacement linked to climate change. Although the topic has come and gone in governmental discussions over the past decade, no policy changes have yet been implemented. And, as Canada and other developed countries are falling short of their targets for emissions reductions to mitigate climate change, some of the world’s most vulnerable are the first to feel the effects.

Ahmed is in his mid-sixties now, and frail. He walks slowly, often supported by the arm of a young neighbour. In his left eye, a cloudy white coats the brown iris and the pupil. He says it’s his return to Somalia and the drought that made him almost blind. He’s sleeping in his nephews’ old house, on a woven mat on the ground. Having given up his refugee status, he isn’t eligible to work. Ahmed usually eats one meal a day, if he’s lucky, when his family and friends can offer something small to spare. Here in the camp, at least, he has some support.

But there’s no guarantee that support will remain. For years, Kenya has said it will shut down Dadaab, citing security risks and blaming refugees for inciting terrorist attacks and engaging in criminal activities. Last year, the government announced plans for Dadaab’s full closure, and though Ifo 2 has been shuttered, the three remaining camps continue to operate for now. New arrivals are no longer registered there, which is why Ahmed and others who have returned to the camp are not recognized as refugees. A Human Rights Watch report last March urged the Kenyan government to abandon its renewed push to close Dadaab. It cited a leaked UN document in which the government had urged the unhcr to “expedite relocation of the refugees and asylum-seekers residing therein.” The same Human Rights Watch report says the unhcr responded by offering up options, some of which it had been pursuing for a few years: voluntary repatriation to places where it’s safe to return, relocating refugees to other camps in Kenya, integrating refugees with Kenyan family links, and resettling some of those refugees outside Kenya’s borders.

In some cases, people displaced across international borders may end up living in an essentially stateless limbo, as Ahmed does—unable to return home and unable to establish new roots. Some of their home countries are considered safe according to a system designed long before climate change began making parts of the world, some of which have seen thousands of years of human civilization, uninhabitable.

A woman in a black headwrap and printed dress stands in a dirt yard, surrounded by bare trees and branches.
Elizabeth Nyakuoth Jok struggles to grow vegetables in Dadaab due to the hard climate and water shortages.

Dadaab is a salient example of how climate change is complicating an already stretched system of support for refugees. It’s difficult to attribute cases of displacement solely to climate change: in some cases, as in Somalia, climate change is exacerbating conflicts that are already sending thousands of people across international borders; it can also contribute to fights over land and resources that could lead to more waves of refugees. In the Lake Chad region of central Africa, climate change is drying up the main water source, where people would traditionally migrate during the dry season. Those people are forced farther afield, sometimes into neighbouring countries, where conflict can arise over access to land. In Somaliland, a self-declared independent state north of Somalia, droughts are transforming once livable land into barren areas. In parts of the Pacific Ocean, islands are flooded by rising sea waters, making it difficult to farm. In each of these cases, those being displaced wouldn’t meet the formal criteria to be categorized as refugees. As a result, they are not only denied support but are often unable to claim asylum—make a legal request to be considered a refugee—outside their own country.

Two men play chess inside an Ethiopian restaurant, the walls covered by patterned cloths..
Two men play chess inside an Ethiopian restaurant in Dadaab.

Their legal plight boils down to the scope of the term refugee. The word was first formally defined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It comes from the French réfugié, to seek refuge or a safe place, and stems from a period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when French Protestants fled persecution in the country, many moving to England. Drafted in the wake of mass displacement following the Second World War, the UN treaty identifies refugees as people fleeing conflict or persecution in their home countries due to their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a social group. (The convention also prohibits anyone from expelling refugees to territories where their lives or freedoms would be threatened.) The convention was initially designed to protect mainly Europeans who had faced persecution during the Second World War, and it referred specifically to those displaced before January 1, 1951. Nearly two decades later, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees expanded that definition to serve displaced people around the world in the midst of several new refugee crises, including those resulting from war in Vietnam and Algeria.

The terms of the convention have remained unchanged since. This means refugee status doesn’t extend to situations where climate change has played a role in displacing residents—which is why the UN challenges the term “climate refugee,” referring instead to climate or environmental migrants. For those who do cross international borders, the burden rests on the asylum claimant to prove their case and build a defence that identifies the ways in which they might face future persecution. And, if they’ve been displaced by events linked to climate change, it can be a hard case to build because their circumstances aren’t recognized in the legal refugee criteria. Their challenges are even greater if they don’t speak the language of their host country or lack literacy skills.

Some experts contend it’s time to change the thinking around climate displacement. “These climate-related shocks and humanitarian crises are intimately linked,” says Alvin Munyasia, food-security and climate-justice lead at the Oxfam Pan Africa Programme. The growing crisis of climate displacement, he says, “is a consequence of a deeply unequal, unjust, and unsustainable global system.” The communities most vulnerable to climate change effects, he says, are also those with the lowest carbon footprints. Yet, even as some of the world’s greatest emitters, including Canada, pledge to address their contributions to climate change, none have yet taken significant action to support those displaced by it.

It may be time to rework the refugee system entirely. A 2014 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives advocated for, along with admissions targets and integration programs, the creation of a new immigration class for climate migrants. Both Australia and New Zealand have considered such policies to address an influx of refugee claimants from Pacific islands being affected by flooding and loss of fertile lands. Neither country has yet committed to them. This past January, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a landmark ruling in the case of Ioane Teitiota, who sought asylum in New Zealand on the basis that his home country of Kiribati, a Pacific island nation, is under threat from rising sea levels. The ruling said that, when considering deportations, governments must take into account potential threats posed by climate change in asylum seekers’ home countries. But it stops short of expanding the formal definition of refugee to include those endangered by the effects of climate change.

Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, cautions against attempts to revisit that definition. She and other advocates fear doing so would risk ending up with an even narrower set of criteria than those set out by the 1951 convention. But there are other ways for those displaced by forces other than persecution to be accepted within national legislation.

Decision makers can be flexible in their interpretation of what constitutes a refugee. The Canadian government used to have a special class of refugees deemed admissible even if they hadn’t been forced to cross an international border. (That policy was abolished in 2011.) Today, the country allows some exceptions to deportation when expelling an asylum claimant would mean sending them back to a region affected by an emergency or a natural disaster, such as Haiti after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. But, once implemented, these deportation stays often take years to rescind. Meanwhile, claimants live day by day, many unable to attain permanent residency or citizenship in Canada. As long as they aren’t forced to go home, they remain in limbo, much like most refugees in Dadaab.

Some advocates, says Dench, argue for better integration programs, abolishing camps, and helping people learn new ways to make a living, which includes projects such as running a business, making baskets, or building stoves. In Dadaab, that may be the only way forward. Many of the displaced are, like Ahmed, seeing their homes and their livelihoods disappear with little recourse. Researchers have found that nearly half of households surveyed in the camps around Dadaab say they won’t return to their country. They’re afraid of the insecurity and conflict—al-Shabaab militants continue to fight for territory in the region—and also of longer-lasting and more-common droughts. They also fear the loss of their livelihoods, including pastoralism.

“People will always keep trying to find a better livelihood if they lost their current livelihood where they live now due to climate change,” says Babiker, describing a situation he blames on emissions from developed countries. “I think the migration will continue unless we all work together toward a more climate-just world.”

Halimo Mohamed Salat and her grandmother Barwako Shiney Hassan were living with their family in a rural area just north of Kismayo before they fled. They were pastoralists, herding their animals, goats and camels, through sandy soil among short thorny trees and small bushes. There had been droughts before in this region—times when food became scarce and animals emaciated to the point of producing no milk—but none like the one that, in 2011, spread across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti. The rainy periods were shorter and the dry season lasted longer than usual, leaving much of Somalia with a quarter of its usual rainfall. Over 10 million people were under threat of starvation.

“There was no food, there was nothing to eat,” Hassan says. She’s sitting on a mat in her shabbily constructed shelter in part of Dadaab’s Hagadera camp. Even as the number of refugees increased, the unhcr and its partners struggled to gather enough funds to serve each displaced family. In other camps, in other sections, the homes are built with better supplies—tin sheets covering the roofs, mud walls or reinforced structures. In this section of Hagadera, families like Hassan’s have managed to build traditional homes with small branches in domes or rectangles, layered with torn tarpaulins marked “unhcr” and cloths contributed by the UN or other aid organizations or purchased with their scant amounts of money. When it does rain, in the wet season of daily downpours, the homes can flood so much that residents barely manage to sleep.

Food-security expert Munyasia says extreme weather cycles can mean each dry or rainy season is increasingly worse. During the dry season, the vegetation dries up and the ground becomes harder. When the rains do come, they don’t soak into the ground and can instead rush up riverbanks and over communities more quickly, especially when there is little vegetation to guard against flooding. In the dry season in parts of Africa, increasingly intense forest fires can dry out the land even further. Cyclones and other extreme weather events can be more devastating in an area already weakened by droughts or floods.

As pastoralists, Hassan and her family had little education when they arrived at Hagadera. They expected their children and grandchildren to inherit the livelihood they’d maintained for generations—herd animals, live off the land. With low literacy levels and competition in urban areas, former herders often struggle to find another profession even after relocating to cities. But Hassan’s goats and sheep had all stopped producing milk. The herders had to walk farther, into more risky areas, to find places for them to graze. Then, slowly, animals began to die. After some months, none were left. The family moved to Kismayo, a city that was once a robust trading outpost along the Swahili coast, clustered with bright white-and-blue houses with archways and intricate wooden carvings.

For children like Salat, this was a good time. She’d sculpt camels, cows, and goats out of the sand as toys. There were no problems there, she says. She was barely a teenager. From what she remembers, there was food, there was water, there were no more fears. She was with her family.

But, in reality, the family had run out of money after losing their animals and trying to survive in Kismayo. Salat’s father was left behind in the rural area, and no one had heard from him. They suspected he’d died of hunger. Her grandmother Hassan wasn’t able to find work in the city. Hassan says they made the difficult decision to walk from Kismayo to Dadaab. There was no money for transportation. With a group, they travelled over 300 kilometres, scavenging for wild fruits and plants where they could, drinking water when they found it.

As the group journeyed on, people began to lose weight, to weaken. Along the road, two of the children died—Abdirahman, about thirteen, and Salat’s twin, Fatuma. Neither Salat nor her grandmother remember who died first or exactly where. Just that, at one point, Fatuma couldn’t walk any farther. No proper burial was possible. Everyone was too thirsty and hungry. They buried the two in shallow graves, each under a tree, and poured a bit of sand overtop. Hassan wept and continued on with the other children, hoping they would survive. Salat remembers losing her siblings and how she used to look up to Abdirahman, her older brother. “I also thought I would go. I never thought I would survive,” she says. When some people fleeing with vehicles gave them water for the journey, she began to hope they might make it. When the family finally crossed the border to Dadaab, the unhcr registered them as refugees.

Salat is eighteen now. She attends the local school, an opportunity she wouldn’t have had back in Somalia. She is dressed in a purple headscarf, which she pulls up with fingernails still painted with henna from Eid, four months ago. She likes the purple, and she’s wearing it over a dress given to her by her classmates. She wears borrowed bracelets so that her hands can be beautiful. She dreams of having a black abaya—the stylish one-piece robe worn by fashionable Somali women in the camp. After seeing a Kenyan woman driving an ngo vehicle, Salat decided she too wants to train as a driver. Her life in the camp feels almost as though she’s just another Somali Kenyan, with an education and a future.

But, from time to time, the memories return. She has nightmares of the camp closing, of being sent back, of living through it again. Even if she feels that she’s Somali Kenyan, the government has made it clear, with measures such as travel restrictions and pressures to close the camp, that she is not.

Her prospects for resettling elsewhere are no more promising. Nearly all the refugees we met in Dadaab made a joke or reference about wanting to move abroad, to somewhere like Canada, whether because they’d learned I was from there or because they’d heard the country was still resettling refugees. To them, it’s a place where their children could study and they could find work. In reality, less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled internationally each year, especially as countries around the world, including the United States, France, and some parts of the United Kingdom, are increasingly closing their borders, tightening asylum policies, and rejecting claimants. Canada’s refugee policy is relatively open: the country admitted nearly 30,000 refugees last year, compared with a cap of 18,000 set in the US—a country with nearly ten times the population—for the coming year. But those figures are nowhere near proportional to the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide, which, as of last June, exceeded 70 million. The UN considers more than a third of those people refugees.

International agencies that support refugees are seeing their funds decline. Food rations are cut, and the unhcr often struggles to raise enough funding to address the needs of the displaced. Many of those displaced are housed in nearby countries, like Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are themselves grappling with climate change. In many of these host countries, the message is that camps for refugees and internally displaced people are temporary—one day, those people will be able to go home. But, unlike so many human conflicts, climate change has no foreseeable end without countries radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions—something that still wouldn’t resolve the problems already created. Unless the international community accepts that some displacement will become permanent, many Somalis and other displaced groups will continue to live in uncertainty.

The UN says publicly that it’s safe to go back to regions in Somalia where humanitarian assistance is available. As part of the livelihood programs it offers to assist with reintegration, the unhcr sometimes purchases cattle for the returnees, with the goal of allowing herders to resume their former lives on a stable financial footing. According to a 2015 unhcr strategy report, return assistance included prepaid transportation, $120 (all figures US) per person for those going by road, or $60 each for those returning by air. Last year, returning families could receive initial support of more than $1,000—more money than many Somalis or Kenyans earn in a year.

In November, Somalia passed a national policy to reintegrate internally displaced people and returning refugees. But a UN report issued in September had identified challenges the country would still face, including coping with the vast scale of displacement and finding “climate-resilient” solutions to avoid people returning to unsafe environments. While the plan may not be robust, it’s a sign that the country is trying to address the issue.

Over the past few years, the unhcr has sent community leaders from Dadaab back to Somalia to assess the situation, hoping they would encourage people to return home. One of the representatives they sent was taken to Kismayo, the southern coastal city. Since returning to Dadaab, he’s been telling other refugees that, if they want to return to an urban centre—if they feel capable of creating a business there—they have a chance at starting over. But, he says, for the pastoralists who plan to go back to rural life, there is nothing left.

How climate change is driving a refugee crisis in East Africa


Even if Dadaab isn’t forced to close due to government pressure, its future is precarious. When Somalia was experiencing prolonged dry periods, especially in 2011, 2017, and 2019, the Dadaab community and many parts of northern Kenya were too. Herders and community members living near the camp are grappling with access to food and water even as more refugees arrive, adding stress to an already fragile system. Refugees have cut down trees for firewood and shelter, and at times, with the UN and other aid agencies tapping into the local water supply, there hasn’t been enough water to go around.

For nearby residents, like Hawa Gede Amad, the camp brought increased access to water and markets but also left her family more vulnerable to the worsening drought. When I meet her, she’s standing on a small ledge of rocks, tending to her garden. She’s uprooting some plants and fixing the soil around others. Her fingers work fast, picking and pulling apart weeds from the seeds she’s dropped into the soil. Nearby, her two children play. The tall square silver water towers in the distance were built to cater to refugees, but they have also been accessible to the local Kenyan community.

For Amad, the camp brought access to resources, such as water and food markets, and new friends who spoke Somali with her and sometimes shared the food they got from the UN. Amad used to get water from the UN’s water point, which was designed for the refugees but also served the local community. Now that Ifo 2 has closed, that service is gone. The bustling market that sold tea, fruits and vegetables, used clothing, and even animals is now shuttered. Around where she’s standing, there was once a forest. The trees were all cut down by refugees. Now, her husband, like so many others, has to travel farther away from home, deeper into territory potentially frequented by bandits and possible al-Shabaab militants, for the goats to graze.

The UN is making efforts to counter its camps’ environmental impact, planting trees and assisting local communities by funding educational programs and offering access to the same services given to refugees: health care, markets, water towers. In this way, it hopes to prevent tension between residents and refugees. In a world where many can’t return home and their temporary shelter at Dadaab may close, the two groups are learning how to live together.

In many cases, people like Alvin Munyasia are advocating for approaches to displacement that respond to this reality. Instead of trying to send refugees back to the homes they fled, agencies like the unhcr can focus more on helping people find new means of survival that aren’t sensitive to climate variability. If the displaced can gain better education, learn new livelihood skills, and even receive business grants, they may be able to better integrate into the communities where they now find themselves.

In a tea shop at Hagadera’s market, the largest in Dadaab—and comparable in size to many open-air markets in Kenya—I meet Rukia Dhubow Samatar. Her shop is long, stretching down a wooden corridor, with tables scattered at one end. People come to perch on stools, taking tea she brews in the traditional Somali style and serves in small round glasses with plenty of sugar. She’s an outspoken businesswoman, and community members strolling by greet her with respect.

Samatar left Somalia during a drought and came to Dadaab with her husband and six children, a pastoralist family with mainly sons. They got a lift in a car and took just two days to cross the border and register as refugees. Somalis are known for helping one another through difficult times, even when they have little.

For their first years in the camp, the family lived in a small shelter under a plastic sheet. Later on, they were able to build a better home, with tin sheets for walls. Samatar’s husband died a few years ago, leaving her alone to care for their eight children. (They had three more after arriving in the camp, and one has died.) “We cook what we have,” she says about feeding her family. “We don’t get oil, sugar, or vegetables. But we don’t have much choice in this situation.” It’s hard to find and pay for sugar for the tea shop, she says, but the family manages to earn small amounts of money to help grow the business.

Now that Samatar and her family have seen what other options exist here in the camp, she says, she hopes for much more for her children. She would return to Somalia if it were safe to do so, but she knows that the pastoralist life is over. Many of her boys are in school. They “grew up here, in the camps, with the pen in their hand,” she says, “and the pen is how they will make their way.” It’s not clear where her family would go if Dadaab were to close. “I’m not a person who likes to sit idle,” she says. “I’ll pick up my business wherever I can.”

Support for this article was provided by the International Development Research Centre.

Carolyn Thompson
Carolyn Thompson has had her work published by the cbc, Al Jazeera, and the Washington Post. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Patrick Meinhardt
Patrick Meinhardt is an independent photographer based in Nairobi.

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