Every minute, eight people decide to leave everything behind and flee in order to escape war, persecution, or terror (“World”). These people seek a new life where they will have the opportunity to live peacefully and enjoy prosperity, but they are typically met with rigid societies that do not want to shelter these “outsiders.” These are the refugees. Their resilience is awestriking, yet their number is heartbreaking. Currently, there are almost 20 million refugees worldwide (“UNHCR”). What is most shocking, however, is the widespread ignorance regarding the specific details of the refugee crisis, a fact I first noted when I worked at the International Institute of St. Louis this past summer. While the Syrian refugee crisis has recently captured considerable media attention, I would like to focus on a different group of “forgotten” refugees: those in the largest refugee camp in the world (“Dadaab”). In this essay I will analyze the Somalian refugee crisis and discuss a variety of results, ultimately attempting to arrive at one concrete solution.
In 1991, the outbreak of civil war in Somalia due to the rise of the militant group al-Shabaab caused thousands to flee to Kenya seeking safety (Smith 477). As a result, the Dadaab camp system in Kenya was created to provide temporary shelter for 90,000 Somalians, but two decades have since passed and Dadaab is currently home to nearly half a million Somalian refugees (Rawlence). According to Ben Rawlence, a human rights journalist for The Guardian, refugees in the Dadaab camp system are left in a “baking hot limbo” since they are not legally permitted to work in Kenya (Rawlence). Without the ability to earn a living, most Somalian refugees have few opportunities for the future. Even education fails to provide a pathway out of the camp system since the few highly contested spots in the secondary school in Dadaab only lead to job prospects of working as volunteers for agencies within the camp (Rawlence). Thus, the vast majority of Somalians in Dadaab are protracted refugees, meaning that they have been in exile for five or more years. This sustained refugee status essentially means that this temporary camp has steadily become a permanent city. Due to the unsustainable number of Somali refugees who are cyclically trapped in a camp system that provides no opportunity for change, international policy must be changed in order to resettle more Somali refugees.
While the camp itself has become a permanent feature of the Kenyan countryside, the Kenyan government does not permit the construction of permanent structures in Dadaab, so this theoretically interim city which has a population larger than New Orleans solely consists of tents and shanties made from sticks and mud (Rawlence). Since refugees found outside of Dadaab without legal passes can be incarcerated, most people are effectively trapped within this makeshift city for the duration of their lives (Rawlence). Almost 2,000 Somalians from Dadaab are resettled in Europe or the United States annually, but Dadaab’s birthrate of 12,000 newborns per year causes the impact on the camp’s population due to these resettlements to be negligible (Rawlence). Consequently a cycle has been created in which the population of Dadaab is growing indefinitely, yet there is no way for these refugees to develop the means to escape the camp system. Dadaab has become an economic dead zone. Since refugees cannot work, structures cannot be built, and resources are generally scarce, half a million people cannot contribute their skills to society, acting as a continual financial burden to the United Nations and thus the entire world.
Humanitarians from all over the world have thoroughly analyzed the refugee crisis in Kenya, yet only a few solutions are generally accepted as realistic. Experts believe that Dadaab can be resolved through three different possibilities: Somalians can return to Somalia, Kenya can accept the Somalians as new citizens, or Somalians can be resettled to third party countries such as the United States (Rawlence). Without the implementation of one of these plans, Dadaab will continue to grow, causing this irreparable humanitarian crisis to result in the degradation of over half a million people.
While many international critics think that having the Somalians simply return to Somalia would be a feasible solution, a mass expulsion from Kenya would be illegal under current international law (Rawlence). The United Nations constitution prevents countries from forcing refugees to return to zones that are deemed unsafe. Al-Shabaab, the militant group responsible for the violence in Somalia, has maintained power in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu since the start of the civil war in 1991, and these extremists recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, colloquially known as ISIS (Kriel and Duggan). Clearly, the conflict has not subsided to the point where return to Somalia would be safe for the Somalian refugees. While forcing the Somalian refugees to return to Somalia may seem like a manageable solution, this mass exodus would result in thousands returning home to face certain doom.
Although integrating refugees into Kenyan society would seem like a practical solution, there is growing xenophobia towards Somalians among the Kenyan population. On April 15, 2015, 148 Kenyans were slaughtered at a Kenyan University due to an al-Shabaab coordinated massacre. As a result, public opinion regarding the Somalian refugees, who unjustly received criticism for the attack, irreparably declined (“Kenya Threatens”). This growing animosity between Kenyans and Somalis further ostracizes these refugees, and can lead to an increase in radicalism among refugees who are met with few alternatives. An immediate solution must be determined before tensions are further elevated and this catastrophic humanitarian crisis results in blatant disregard for the dignity of refugee lives. At the moment, Kenyans do not want Somalis to be part of their society. Though this xenophobia is not necessarily founded on fair judgments, we cannot easily change the mindset of another country when the United States has not become involved in depth with the issue, and long-term intervention in the conflict would be arduous and costly. Additionally, Kenya has thus far borne the burden of these refugees relatively independently. Insisting that this nation with a GDP comparable in size to that of West Virginia resettle a half million people singlehandedly is unrealistic (GDP).
The United States must increase its humanitarian aid in order to resolve this issue. The Kenyan government has threatened to close the Dadaab camp multiple times, yet the United States continues to pressure Kenya to not only keep the camp open, but expand it further (“U.S. ‘Told’ Kenya”). So far, the United States’ attempt at intervening has not assisted in forming concrete solutions to the issue, but rather the U.S. has simply avoided direct confrontation with the crisis. Although roughly 9,000 Somalians are permitted to resettle in the United States each year according to United States immigration policy, this current rate of resettlement is not conducive to eradicating the problem which faces almost half a million Somalian refugees (“Fiscal Year 2014”). Clearly, the United States must revise its foreign policy in order to adequately address the crisis in Kenya.
From my experience working at the International Institute of St. Louis, a refugee resettlement organization which directly interacts with new arrivals to the U.S., I realized that the systems in place to handle the influx of refugees in the United States are capable of handling more arrivals. As a tutor in the Institute’s Citizenship Literacy courses, I experienced the resilience and determination of refugees firsthand. Most of the refugees with whom I worked were over the age of fifty and had been illiterate their entire lives, but by sheer commitment and dedication, they had begun to learn English and United States history in order to officially become naturalized citizens. Organizations like the International Institute are in place all around the country, but they are not being utilized to their fullest potential. In June 2015, Anna Crosslin, the CEO of the International Institute, was nationally recognized as a “Champion of Change” due to her integral role in the successful resettlement of thousands of refugees. While in the White House receiving her award, she directly challenged President Obama to not only increase the number of refugees admitted every year, but to double the amount. Without a doubt these resettlement organizations are capable of handling more refugees; therefore, government policy must be revised to allow a greater influx of these refugees who have no other alternatives.
U.S. foreign policy regarding refugees has become an increasingly controversial topic, especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels. Refugees, however, undergo an intensive background check process that often takes years which includes security screening performed by the FBI and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense (“Refugee Screening”). National security is of the utmost importance, but refugees are not security risks. Perhaps the economic impact of refugees can be considered a factor weighing against the mass resettlement of refugees, but extensive research has proven that refugees often spur economic growth and create new jobs (“Much Ado”). Overall, research seems to suggest that refugees have a positive impact on the economy while posing a negligible security risk. While the United States is not singularly responsible for solving this international crisis, this nation which has the resources and the means to remedy the situation still faces a moral call to action. Perhaps a coordinated international resettlement partnership among the U.S. and other affluent nations would be the ultimate goal to solve this crisis, but the United States must take the first steps in order to begin this long term solution. The United States has the resources to resettle more refugees, and these refugees will realistically have a positive economic return on our society. However, too many people seem to be wary of accepting more refugees into the country. Education about the refugee crisis and the process refugees are forced to endure will cause public opinion about refugees to shift. The task is large. The stakes are high. Our moral obligation for the preservation of human life and dignity through refugee integration, however, requires us to act immediately and increase our efforts toward refugee resettlement. In this year of a Presidential election, we must be mindful of the global issues that surround us and who we trust to lead us through these humanitarian crises.
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