This is a guest blog by Sir Nicholas Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, who recently visited the Red Cross programme at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Red Cross worker at Dadaab camp

© IFRC

Dadaab refugee camp is said to be the largest in the world. With an estimated population of 500,000 people, no one can say exactly how many people live here – it changes every day. But many have been here for 20 years, and others have known no other home.

Today, this is a lawless, windswept place. Rows of tattered tents cower behind razor wire fences, in an attempt to shelter families from the burn of the sun and the harsh world outside. 

No place like home

But for those living here, there are few other options. The majority have fled violence in the neighbouring country of Somalia, where fighting between the Al Shabaab rebel group and a series of weak Somali governments, has turned their home into a warzone.

For those waiting to go home – when is the right time? While Al Shabaab has been driven out of many parts of Somalia, a new government must still unite a country divided by civil war. Some 50,000 people have already gone back – others hopscotch across the border, playing wait and see.

But this is no game – Dadaab is a dangerous place. The camp is home to Al Shabaab sympathisers as well as criminals; placing people at constant risk of violence. Women are particularly vulnerable – every time they venture out to collect firewood for their families, they risk assault and worse.

Commending bravery

I was due to visit 18 months ago, but it was too dangerous. Two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped and have never been found. Effective security is vital given the risk of further incidents, and we are reminded daily of the sheer bravery of those living here and those that continue to provide humanitarian assistance.

Red Cross staff and volunteers live right in the midst of the camp, relying on the strength of their reputation and the valuable rapport they have built with the refugee community – I have seen first-hand the valuable services this allows them to provide.

Health and immunisation clinics; feeding programmes that have reduced malnutrition levels from 40 per cent to less than 15 per cent; a maternity unit so new mothers can safely care for their children; a marvellous new hospital; counselling for victims of violence; access to clean water; a latrine for almost every family; camp security and management, dispute resolution…the list goes on and on.

Looking forward

I still find myself asking – what now? Even if Somali refugees could go home – many are understandably scared and most have no home to go back to. With other conflicts in Syria and Congo demanding UN funding, and the Red Cross appeal less than 50 per cent funded, we need more support to keep up our lifesaving work.

Walking through the camp at late morning, the place feels deserted. Many have retreated to their shelters to eat a meagre meal and chew on qat – a mildly narcotic leaf – for the rest of the afternoon. These are hardy and resourceful people, but they have become dependent on aid.

The dry, sandy soil is amazingly fertile, and there is plenty of water, but they have been corralled in the camps, when they could have been given land and tools, a few seeds and a water supply to allow them some self-sufficiency at least.

This is not to decry the magnificent work of the Kenya Red Cross, and the few other agencies that have stayed in this wilderness of a place. But half a million people here have been stuck in limbo for a quarter of a century, and it is important that we continue to support them in many different ways, so that when they do return home, life can begin again.