Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socio-economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern Kenya

Marc-Antoine Perouse De Montclos, and Peter Mwangi Kagwanja

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 13, Issue 2 (2000), Pages 205–222


This paper describes the urban characteristics of the two largest refugee camps in Kenya—the Dadaab refugee camp complex and the Kakuma refugee camp—and discusses the determinants of their future growth and durability. Dadaab refugee camp complex, comprising the Hagadera, Dagahaley and Ifo refugee camps, is in the Garissa region and hosts mainly refugees from Somalia. The Kakuma refugee camp is in the Turkana region and hosts mainly refugees from South Sudan. Both host regions have very low population density, a semi-arid environment, and some of the lowest socio-economic indicators in Kenya.

Based on empirical work undertaken in 1998, the authors argue that the Dadaab and Kakuma camps meet the criteria for urban centers based on their demographic, structural, occupational, cultural, and economic characteristics. Specifically:

  • In 1998, the Kakuma and Dadaab had refugee populations of 58,000 and 106,000 respectively, with high population density per inhabited land area. The host regions have very low population density and traditionally nomadic pastoralist communities, and consequently there are relatively few local residents living in the vicinity of the camps. In the case of Dadaab, some local pastoralist communities have moved in from surrounding areas to take advantage of water sources and lower food prices in the camps, and to sell cattle and milk.
  • Infrastructure has been built in the camps, which have better health and educational facilities than the rest of the host regions. Dadaab town (the original urban settlement that predates the camps) has electricity, piped water, health facilities, and schools.
  • The camps are cosmopolitan in the sense that they mix ethnicities and there are changing gender dynamics (for example, co-educational schools).
  • The refugee camps are connected to a broader urban network. While refugees are officially confined to camps, many use bus networks to travel to border towns (Wajir and Lokichokio in the north and Liboi in the east on the Somali border) and to Nairobi.
  • Refugee camps function as ‘market towns’, with trading networks extending into countries of origin. Refugees sell food aid and products of development projects and purchase items that they need from markets in the camps.
  • Refugee entrepreneurs in the camps accumulate capital from family or remittances, the sale of food rations, and loans from NGOs, and also rely on credit from traders.
  • The refugee camps are also important as labor markets. While some NGOs provide casual work to refugees and local residents, higher-skilled jobs with good wages tend to be taken by expatriates or by Kenyans who are not from the province.

The authors also identify several factors that affect the viability of refugee camps as cities including: the relationship between camp residents and the local population; government policy towards refugees (including recognition of the camps as urban centers and freedom of movement provided to refugees); access to natural resources such as water and arable land; urban planning for new residents and infrastructure; and investments in the development of the host region. The authors question whether refugees would remain in the camps if humanitarian aid was withdrawn. They conclude that the continuity of ‘camp-towns’ will depend on the depth and complementarity of social, cultural, and economic linkages with the neighboring areas.