Life Inside Somalia's Refugee Camps

The country's weak government struggles with how to help the people displaced by decades of war.

Babaado IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Armin Rosen)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- At certain points, Mogadishu, longtime synonym for anarchy, terrorism, and urban warfare, is indistinguishable from many other cities in the developing world. Along Maka Al-Mukarama road, a former front line during Somalia's civil war years, new storefronts and sidewalks have turned the few remaining stripped or sandbagged buildings into isolated novelties, relics of a conflict that the city seems eager to leave behind.

In the avenue's median strip, there's a single, toppled solar-powered street lamp, a recent victim of the jihadi militant group Al Shabaab. But scores of others are still standing--towering, brand-new, and functional. Even in the former government quarter, where the bombed-out shells of former embassies and ministry buildings are still walled over with sandbags, there's evidence of a tentative recovery. So while the Turkish embassy might have been bombed a few days before my arrival in Mogadishu, the country is still going ahead with a handsome new complex in the devastated Lido Beach area, far from the heavily-guarded green zone where much of Somalia's international diplomacy currently takes place. The embassy is in an early stage of construction, but its concrete frame rises high above the ruins surrounding it. Along the oceanfront, where the destruction is almost total, there are now freshly paved sidewalks lining streets without a single habitable building. Two years earlier, when Al Shabaab and an African Union peacekeeping force fought for control of the city, a visit to the oceanfront would have been out of the question--and so would even the modest infrastructural improvements I witnessed. Even at its most pulverized, Mogadishu hints at its potential recovery.

This narrative of tentative progress, however, dissolves once you reach Mogadishu's refugee camps. In 2010, the southern part of Somalia was gripped with one of the worst famines the country had ever seen, a catastrophe that killed well over a quarter-million people and wiped out the region's mostly nomadic and livestock-based economy. It didn't help that the worst-hit areas were under Al Shabaab's control--and that the jihadis were curtailing the delivery of life-saving outside aid. In 2010, Mogadishu was home to the largest concentration of internally displaced persons on earth, a city-within-a-city of 400,000 refugees living in a spontaneous sprawl of rag tents on the city's devastated outskirts.

It's unknown exactly how many IDPs still remain, but during a recent visit to the city I saw a full horizon of tents, a wood frame and tarp metropolis that stretched for miles in each direction. There were tents on either side of the high, broken-glass-topped walls of ruined compounds, tents surrounding a gutted former military hospital, and tents on either side of the broad avenue former dictator Siad Barre constructed for military parades. Perhaps fittingly--it was Barre's oppressiveness and eventual overthrow that triggered the past 20 years of violence--Barre's former presidential reviewing box, a high, concrete structure where the dictator and his clique would watch the army march by, has collapsed in on itself.  Children play in its pulverized remains, and IDPs huddle in what little shade it provides. Tents surround it on all sides.

The IDP camps represent a unique challenge to Somalia's newly installed government. In an effort to disconnect them from Mogadishu's still-recovering urban fabric, the municipal government articulated plans to move the IDPs to a new, more manageable location farther from the center of town, shortly after the restoration of Somalia's central government in mid-2012. The government believes that resolving the IDP problem will bring a measure of order and control to Mogadishu, a city that's seen little of either since Barre's overthrow in 1991. But one glance at the tent city on Mogadishu's edges reveals how herculean that task would be, even if the local government actually had the capacity to move them.

If the IDPs are allowed to stay, however, it would be a tacit admission that the city, and perhaps the country's entire social framework, are still beyond the nascent government's control. The war is largely over in Mogadishu--but the IDPs provide a glimpse into the volatile status quo that's taken its place.


This Horsheed refugee camp is a tight-packed clutter of about 2,500 tents, although in greater Mogadishu's landscape of war ruins and white tarp, it's difficult to tell exactly where one camp ends and another begins. The camp sits alongside Barre's former parade route and proves how Al Shabaab never completely left Mogadishu. Even in broad daylight, our local handlers were only comfortable with us spending about 30 minutes there, and more outlying camps are considered no-go zones at any time of day.

One of the camp's leaders, sporting a loose, purple tunic and an orange-dyed beard, explained why his community was unable to return to their homes. "We are pastoralists, but even the farmers' fields have trees growing in the middle of them, because they haven't been maintained. They'd have to start again, too."

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.