Life Inside Somalia's Refugee Camps

He said he walked for four days to get to Mogadishu from his home in the south. "We can go back if we had a source of livelihood, but we don't have it. We don't have any livestock anymore. There's no way we can even intend to go back." Adding to the problem is the ongoing conflict in the famine-affected areas, where the Kenyan army, the powerful Kenyan Ras Kamboni militia, Sufi militants and Al Shabaab are all fighting for control.

The government is only barely present in Mogadishu's IDP belt: Even the safer camps are under the control of small militia groups that don't necessarily draw an official salary. These "gatekeepers" are typically government-empowered and militia-backed "district commissioners" whose control over an individual camp has been given an official sanction. At the Badbaado camp, the commissioner was a tall, middle-aged man named Abdullahi Ibrahim. He commanded a small unit of uniformed police--in Somalia, the security sector largely consists of underpaid or even un-paid clan militias who are in an (often temporarily) alliance with the government.

On its surface, the gatekeeper system is deeply exploitative: pseudo-warlords rule IDP camps as a kind of personal fiefdom, skimming money and aid items from NGOs and demanding kickbacks on necessities like the purchase of local water rights. At the same time, gatekeepers provide a measure of organization to a camp that the government cannot. They might take kickbacks on the purchase of water--but water might not flow without them. We likely could not have visited Badbaado without the permission of the district commissioner. At its best, the gatekeeper system is just one way Somalis have coped with the absence of a central authority. Now that there is such an authority in place (at least in theory), there's talk of phasing them out: The government is discussing the possibility of locally electing the camps' district commissioners. But for now, at least, the old system is firmly in place.

The gatekeepers are there to keep outsiders out, and to protect their own privileges inside of the IDP camps. But at Badbaado, they want to keep the IDPs in, as well. "We ask and request [local NGOs] to just maintain the flow of water until the IDPs will be evicted from here to another place," said Ibrahim. "If the water runs out, they'd go back to the main town, and there would be havoc."

In a way, the IDPs are already part of the city. Food distribution stopped in Badbaado roughly a year ago--many IDPs work as day laborers, or merchants in Mogadishu's sprawling Bakara market. A Somali NGO runs a single health clinic in the camp, but water remains the major reason that IDPs have stayed there. "If the water were cut, no one would spend a single night here," one IDP told me. 

The IDPs are understandably unwilling--and practically unable--to return home. But what would it mean to integrate them into a city in as fragile an area as Mogadishu? Somalia's traditional, cattle-based nomadic economy is undergoing traumatic changes--communities that have been nomadic for centuries will have to scrape out a living as day laborers or merchants in cities that are hundreds of miles away from their ancestral lands. Governments would have to view Mogadishu's IDPs as permanent migrants, rather than as temporarily displaced, and to face the massive economic and social shifts reflected in rapid urbanization.

But in some ways, the Mogadishu IDPs don't represent a special case--they're just more acutely exposed to the challenges that affect most everyone else in town. According to a Human Rights Watch report, there is a significant rape problem in Badbaado, particularly among the uniformed police--the very "gatekeepers" who theoretically keep the camp safe. And according to one gender violence activist, there is only one doctor in Mogadishu empowered to certify a medical finding of rape--without his signature, a rape prosecution simply can't occur. A 2012 incident in which a rape victim and journalist were imprisoned over accusations against members of the Somali national police has also had a chilling effect on both reports and prosecutions of sexual violence. The IDPs live on the edge of government and Shabaab-controlled territory and are especially vulnerable to any future changes in control.

Mogadishu's IDPs have to cope with Islamist militarism, drought, lawlessness, and a state authority that, at best, cannot meaningfully improve their circumstances--and that preys on them at worst. Even as Mogadishu pulls itself out of two decades of anarchy, the IDPs are a reminder of the substantial challenges that remain, and of Somalia's dangerous state of flux. In the most problematic sense, the IDPs' "integration" is already taking place--Mogadishu's problems are theirs as well. 

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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