Earth Matters Around the Web: Somali Refugees in Kenya

Earlier this month the United Nations, the government of Kenya, and that of Somalia reached an agreement to help Somali refugee in Kenya return to Somalia voluntarily. Kenyan Internal Security Minister Joseph Lenku has said that the refugee camps must close, however the UN has stated that this is not an official command and that refugees will not be forced to leave.

More than 500,000 Somali refugees live in Kenya and refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma are so large that they resemble cities. In fact, Dadaab is the third largest city in all of Kenya and many residents have spent their entire lives there. The camps began when Somalis fled the collapse of their central government in 1991 and have grown since then as Somalis have continued to flee internal conflict.

Mainly due to security concerns and public pressure, the Kenyan government desperately wishes to disband the camps. However many Somalis do not wish to return to Somalia because it remains a dangerous place to live with little future for their children; many do not even consider themselves Somali having never lived there. Despite Africa having historically porous borders, current politicians are extremely reluctant to integrate refugee populations despite the fact that they can become valuable assets in terms of resources and human-capital.

The plight of the Somali refugees in Kenya and refugee camps in general, brings to mind Otobong Nkanga’s sculpture The Limits of Mapping, which is shown below. The Limits of Mapping is a table shaped as a map with strong geometric borders and giant wooden rods piercing key locations making it difficult for the viewer to examine the piece. The table is significant because it alludes to the piece of furniture over which colonial rulers historically created borders and defined nations. The wooden rods portray the violence of this process which ignores the lives of those who occupy the land and who bear the consequences of the decisions.

In Kenya right now, more than 500,000 Somalis are confined to refugee camps and denied human rights because of where they were born. The Kenyan government is right to be concerned about security problems caused by refugee camps, but refusing to integrate them is not a long-term solution when they have nowhere else to safely go.


Otobong Nkanga b. 1974

Nigeria Limits of Mapping 2010

Wood, acrylic paint, metal


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