The phrase “refugee camp” is misleading. In many parts of the world, these refuges for people fleeing violence in their home countries have become permanent in all but name. The Dadaab camp in Kenya, for example, was built in 1992 to temporarily hold 90,000 refugees from Somalia’s civil war. It is now home to almost 500,000 people, making it about the size of New Orleans and effectively constituting the third-largest city in Kenya.

Ben Rawlence writes about the “strange limbo” of life in a Kenyan refugee camp through the stories of nine people in “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.” Rawlence spent five years reporting on the camps as a Human Rights Watch researcher and then three years researching the people he writes about in this book.

Ben Rawlence

Ben Rawlence

Somalia has been an “arc of instability” over the last quarter century, battered by war and recurrent violence, leaving conditions so unsafe that an estimated one-third to one-half of Somalia’s population has fled for their lives, most ending up in the Dadaab camp. Rawlence writes, “After so much death, it was a wonder anyone remained in the country at all.”

Deciding to flee one’s homeland is an extraordinarily difficult decision, regardless of how dangerous the conditions there. Rawlence likens it to a rock climber on the face of a treacherous mountain, where every move has life-or-death consequences. The people who left Somalia for Kenyan refugee camps faced a terrifying journey, where disease and murder were commonplace and rape was epidemic.

Upon arrival, they found the camp to be a “groaning, filthy, disease-ridden slum heaving with traumatized people without enough to eat.” Crime, corruption and bureaucratic indifference were rampant. Maryam, one of the people Rawlence follows, said there were a lot of problems at the camps, but “it’s only the bullets that are the problem back home.”

City of Thorns is an important book because it shatters the de-personalizing label “refugee” and focuses discussion of refugees on the people themselves. The global refugee establishment, writes Rawlence, is “dependent upon not recognizing the refugees as humans. Because to do so would be to acknowledge that they have rights.”

He eloquently shows that those who flee their homeland in fear of losing their lives are people who have the same aspirations, and who face similar challenges, as anyone else, but they do so in an almost unimaginably more difficult and desperate environment.

Rawlence lets people speak for themselves and tell their own stories in this powerful book. Tawane, for example, was a youth leader and entrepreneur who managed social services in the Dadaab camp when United Nations staff left because it became unsafe for them. Bright, energetic and effective, he felt physically and spiritually confined by life in Dadaab.

“What if I had had the chance?” he asked. “What could I have achieved? If I was free of the camp, outside, in the world . . . I could have accomplished so much more.”


Rawlence is critical of refugee camps but doesn’t offer any suggestions for how to improve these temporary-in-theory, yet permanent-in-practice institutions. The world has essentially outsourced responsibility for refugees to the United Nations and disclaimed responsibility for them. And the United Nations is failing to do its job. Rawlence’s writing makes clear that it is time to propose oversight, standards and reform of these camps, where rape and other violent crimes are commonplace and people are dehumanized. Solutions won’t be easy, but the problem has long been known, and now it is time for action.

Dave Canarie is a Portland attorney, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and St. Joseph’s College, and a member of the Domestic Violence Panel of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project.

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