Dadaab Refugees Fear Repatriation will deny them the Right and Freedom to University Education

Mugo Mugo, Conflict Researcher and Co-Founder of African Media Initiative on Development (AMID-Africa), Global Education MagazineMugo Mugo

Conflict Researcher and Co-Founder of African Media Initiative on Development (AMID-Africa). Masters of Arts Student of Peace, Development, Security and International Conflict Transformation at Innsbruck University March 2014. Holder of Masters Degree in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies from UN’s-Mandated University for Peace (2012).

e-mail: / web: @PMugoMugo


Abstract: Among the refugee community of the largest refugee camp in the world, the Dadaab refugee camps (1) in northern Kenya, education is more than a right and a freedom. It is a door through which the refugees can get out of the camp, or what some of them call the ‘warehouse’. University education is a window from a camp life that resembles a ‘Prison from Opportunity’ due to restrictive measures and limited mobility imposed by the host state. In other words, the university education within a refugee camp opens and expands refugees’ opportunities, adds value to their lives thereby transforming their situation from being that of a dependent population into one that has capabilities to secure its own future. The camp’s university restores hope and redefines the refugees’ future beyond tertiary education.

Keywords: Refugees, Education, Dadaab University, Somalia, Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER), Abdullahi Mire, Dagahaley.



In January 2014, Abdullahii Mire, one of the 25 students undertaking the same course, hopes he will graduate with a Diploma in Public Relations and Journalism from the first university in the world situated within a refugee camp. Abdullahii is part of the first generation of Somalia’s refugees at Dadaab refugee camp, that will graduate from Dadaab university, a branch of Kenyatta University in Kenya, set up to meet the needs of the 474,485 refugees (2) residing at Dadaab refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in the world. Dr Josephine Gitome (3), a lecturer at Kenyatta University and coordinator of the Dadaab university campus says that the university education  in the camp is a door through which the refugees can walk out of the restrictive camp life. But when Abdullahi Mire contemplates furthering his education beyond the diploma, he becomes a worried student. “Our status in Kenya is uncertain, we fear repatriation. It is even killing the moral of student who wants to join the university next year. We fear going back to Somalia as that would mean discontinuing with our education. There is no formal learning in Somalia, just ongoing conflict and instability.” Somalia has been in proctracted conflict since 1991 and the majority of her population live as internally displaced persons or as refugees in neighboring countries.

 Dadaab University campus of Kenyatta University, global education magazine

Dadaab University campus of Kenyatta University: Students shortly before starting end year exams on November 22, 2013. Picture by Mugo Mugo Patrick

The repatriation fears have been with the Somali refugees in Kenya for weeks now after the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed a tripartite agreement. An agreement that among others proposes the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in Kenya back to Somalia within the next three years. Since the Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya on September 21st, 2013 that claimed at least 70 lives, calls for Somalia’s refugees to return home have become louder. Kenyan authorities say that some of the attackers who carried out the terror attack might have been hailed or gotten trained within the camps, something the Somali refugees have denied. Among those who signed the tripartite agreement was Kenya’s Deputy Vice President William Ruto who noted while signing the agreement, “Kenya has been stretched financially to secure the camps but criminals including al-Shabaab have continued to take advantage of the refugee camps to destabilize our country. Elements of the refugees’ population have also abated the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.”


Two methods were used to gather information for this story. The first method was face to face interviews that I conducted with the refugees during my visit to the Dadaab refugee camps as well as to the Dadaab University campus location at Dagahaley secondary school during the second week of November, 2013. The second method applied was desktop research about recent and past developments regarding Dadaab refugee camps.

Dadaab Refugees and the Right and Freedom to Higher Education 

Abdullahii Mire came to Kenya as a refugee back in 1991 by the age of three together with his parents and two other siblings. They were fleeing the civil war in their country. Abdullahii started his education journey in 1995 at Juba primary school in Dagahaley refugee camp. During his first five years in school, the language of instruction was Somali and English. With Somalia descending into further anarchy it became apparent that the refugees staying in Kenya would take a semi-permenant status. Therefore, the Kenyan government and UNHCR decided to adopt the Kenyan education system as the curriculum of learning beyond standard six. This meant that Abdullahii Mire had to transfer from his previous school to Unity Primary within Dagahaley and learn a new language in school, called Swahili, Kenya’s second most spoken language.

After finishing his primary education, Abdullahii joined Dagahaley secondary school in 2003 from where he graduated in 2006. Without any post-secondary institutions available that would have enabled him to pursue further education within the camp, he started working as an interpreter within the refugee camp for the various humanitarian agencies. For Abdullahii Mire this work was much more than just a means to make a living but an undertaking “to break the communication barrier between his community and those seeking to help them.” His passion for communication was to mutate into journalism during the 2011 drought that drew around 100,000 Somalis from Somalia into Kenya. The drought across the Horn of Africa affected 10 and 12 million (4) people and was termed as the worst drought in more than 60 years, and Somalia due to two decades of protracted conflict and al-Shabaab menace were the worst affected.

The drought crisis triggered an international humanitarian response and also increased media attention among the Somali people are they marched in their thousands insearch of help and protection. It was at this time that Abdullahii Mire started working as a fixer or stringer for the various international media institutions that sought to draw world attention to the crisis. In the effort to prepare himself for his new but demanding undertaking, he sought to get a Certificate in Communication from a local college, despite the  misgivings of its quality of education. When he was about to give up hope of furthering his eduaction, the news came that Kenyatta University in partnership with others would open a branch at the Dadaab camps. Upon the opening of the campus branch, Abdullahii applied and got admitted as well as a scholarship to study for his diploma. But due to insecurity within the camp that made lecturers from Kenyatta university not go to the camp he had to wait until 2013 to finally start his delayed post-secondary education.

Dadaab University: A Symbol of Hope and Opportunity  

Dadaab University opened its doors at the camp and received its first students in January 2013. The campus is not only welcoming the refugees but also members of the host community. The university says that one of its objectives is to empower refugees through tertiary education. It offers diploma, undergraduate and master’s programs in academic fields such as Finance, Marketing, Project Management, Education, Public Administration, Community Mobilization, Peace and Conflict Studies and many others. Previously, most students at the refugee camp faced an educational dead end as there were no tertiary institutions recognized by the Kenyan Government at the camp. Unable to return to Somalia, to secure meaningful work in Kenya, or to continue their education, they sat idle in the camp, and were therefore high prey to anyone seeking to recruit them to engage in all sorts of criminal activities.

 Dr Josephine Gitombe speaking to students at Dadaab University campus of Kenyatta University, global education magazine

Dr Josephine Gitombe speaking to students at Dadaab University campus of Kenyatta University shortly before they started their end of year exams on November 22, 2013. Picture by Mugo Mugo Patrick

Dadaab Refugee Camp: Why Education is more than a Right

Dadaab camp, often referred to as the ‘City in Sand’ is home to 474,485 residents who have been displaced by conflict and drought in Somalia. The camp’s population equals the number of inhabitants of the Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, or the population of Doha, capital of the gulf state of Qatar. When it was founded in 1990, the camp had been set up to host 90,000 refugees and was supposed to represent hope. However, the camp now represents captivity. The movements of camp residents are restricted to the camps itself. If a resident wants to travel out of the camp, he or she needs a special pass to do so, else risking detention and deportation. The Kenyan government argues that the Dadaab camp is an “unbearable and the most imminent threat to national security”. The government sites series of terror attacks within the country blamed on al-Shabaab militias and insecurity incidents emanating from the camps as the basis for its desire to see the refugees return to Somalia. Kenya government which military invaded Somalia (5) to contain al-Shabaab and now part of the 17,000 African Union stabilization force in Somalia, says that Somalia is on a path of peace. The refuges at Dadaab refugee camps discount the Kenya’s governments argument on ground that Somalia is unsafe and therefore unwilling to return. The refuges points out that in 2013 alone, 6,000 refugees have crossed into Kenya from Somalia, running away from al-Shabaab threats, hunger and conflict. According to the UNHCR, registration of asylum seekers in Dadaab has been on suspension by Kenyan authorities since June 2013 and the 6,000 new arrivals (6) are still await registration.

Refugee playing football at Dagahaley camp, global education magazine

Refugee playing football at Dagahaley camp, November 22, 2013. Picture by Mugo Mugo Patrick

Abdulahi Mire’s Perspective on the Dadaab University Education 

Abdulahii Mire says that the education he has acquired at Dadaab University campus has given him hope and liberated him from the dark. Abdulahii is confident that he can compete with the rest of the hosting nation of Kenya’s students. The possibility of receiving university education within the refugee camp has taken away the torture of having to travel from the camp to other parts of Kenya to secure a decent education. In times that Abdulahi and his friends had to do just that, they had to endure countless police and immigration officials’ checks and interrogation, turning the journey to the capital city of Kenya, Nairobi that takes Kenyan 7 hours into a 10-15 hours trip. The constant harassment the Somalis students had to endure, in some cases being called ‘mbuzi’ (goat) by immigration or policemen officers during interrogation, is dehumanizing. Above all, Abdullahii emphasises that the university at the camp is very well thought-out as it offers courses like nutrition, peace building, media and communication and disaster management, all topics relevant to the refugees and also discussing the Somali context.

Challenges and Opportunities of Being a University Student within a Refugee Camp 

The Dadaab university campus is part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER). Amid the opportunity that comes with Dadaab University campus, there are challenges like the absence of a library within the learning institution. Furthermore, as the university is currently set up within the secondary school building, the student only undertakes their studies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is also no university culture within the environment thus absence of pioneers or seniors that the students could look up to or seek assistance from. The students have extra burdens like that of having to work to take care of their families with Abdullahii being the only bread winner in the family. Thus without a scholarship, the students would not see the inside of a university lecture.  UNHCR says that ‘education is a core protection activity’ and that 36% of school-age children in the Dadaab camps are enrolled in primary and 7.4% in secondary schools. The UNHCR notes that education within the camps faces major challenges, “large number of school drop-out due to shortage of teaching and learning materials, school uniform, stationary and decimated number of qualified teacher.” (7)

In the primary school 66% of the teachers are untrained while figure hits 90% at primary level are untrained. Thus, the Dadaab University campus is an avenue towards offsetting this challenges that in the long run could offset the need for trained teachers at most of the 39 primary and secondary schools with the  Dadaab camps. The refugees hope that those contemplating to repatriate them back home to Somalia, will reconsider their decision as even in three years some of them might not have completed their diplomas and degree. While Somalia remains their motherland, it is still not a safe place to return to. Furthermore, the education at the camp goes a long way in preparing them for the future, a future they hope, either within Somalia or in other countries will constructively contribute to rebuilding their motherland.


  1. Dadaab refugee’s camps brief: Dadaab originally planned for 90,000 back in 1992 refugees but 20 years on, it host 474,485 residents, 95.8% Somalis, 3.9% Ethiopians, 2% Sudan. Of this number, 50% of population is under 18years of age. There six camps within Dadaab namely Ifo, Ifo 2 East, Dagahaley, Hagadera, Kambioos.
  2. UNHCR. (2013). Somali Refugess in the Region: As of 24th October 2013. UNHCR Somalia Nairobi, Kenya : United Nations High Commission for Refugess .
  3. Aljazeera-English. (2013, November 22). Retrieved November 29, 2013, from
  4. Mugo, M. P. (August, 2011). Horn of Africa Hunger Crisis: Why the Politics of Applying Bandages Hasn’t Stopped the Bleeding . Peace and Conflict Monitor, UN’s Mandated University for Peace , 11.
  5. Mugo, M., P. (October, 2012). Operation to ‘Degrade Al-Shabaab Capacity’: Kenya Mission with No Winners, But Losers. Peace and Conflict Journal, UN’s Mandated University for Peace , 16.
  6. UNHCR. (2012, P:1). Dadaab Refugee Operation: Field Activities in 2013. Nairobi, Kenya : UNHCR Sub-Office Dadaab, External Relation Unit .
  7. UNHCR. (2012, PP:2-3). Dadaab Refugee Operation: Field Activities in 2013. Nairobi, Kenya : UNHCR Sub-Office Dadaab, External Relation Unit .

This article was published on 10th December: Human Rights Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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