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After 20 years, Kenya’s refugee families still live in limbo

Twenty years since refuge families started pouring in to eastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps, there is little likelihood any of them will leave anytime soon.

Just outside the town of Dadaab, refugees from all over Africa live in three camps which when counted together would make the east African country’s fourth largest city.

This year is the twentieth year refugees mostly fleeing the war in Somalia, started arriving there. Originally built to house 90,000 people, the camps’ population is now at 300,000, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. With about 1,000 people arriving from Somalia every week, many live on the outskirts of the camps because they cannot find space inside. And there are few signs the Somalis Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Zimbabweans living there will be moving out in the near future.

Camp elder, Mohamed Dahir was a farmer in Ethiopia, who fled government persecution in 1984. Five years later, he fled Somalia. "To be honest, being a refugee is not something I chose," he said. But he has been one for almost half his life. "I wish I had a better life than I have today," he told Time magazine.
The camps are a temporary sticking plaster solution that have in effect stayed as such for 20 years. Refugees who arrived there when they were just toddlers  and been to school in the camps and are now still there as adults, with little hope of getting a job.

There are now 6,000 grandchildren of the original arrivals, the people who arrived the first year, in 1991, according to figures from the United Nations. Many will grow old waiting to get out and start living their lives,  and some will die waiting. They are waiting either for a Somalia safe enough to go back to; or to be resettled in Europe or the United States. But Somalia hasn't had a working government since 1991, the year the camps sprung up, and with its transitional government weakened by al-Shabab rebels, it looks unlikely that Somalia will return to peace for years.

Even though families there mostly don’t go hungry, there is an overriding atmosphere of despair and sadness. Kenya gives automatic refugee status to people who are part of a large-scale influx. But refugees lack access to basic services such as health care and education and work and struggle to integrate. "There is a need to shift the refugee policy," says the UN’s Richard Floyer Acland. "People who have never even seen Somalia — can you keep treating them as foreign refugees?"

Hayley attribution