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City of Thorns—the forgotten refugee camp where lives are left in limbo

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New book City of Thorns uses interviews to build a powerful picture of the lives of refugees in the world’s largest camp in Kenya, writes?Ken Olende
Issue 2490
Ben Rawlences City of Thorns

Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns

Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp, but it lies forgotten in the scrublands of northern Kenya.

It has roughly the same population as Leicester, some 500,000 people. Most have fled from neighbouring Somalia.

But the Kenyan government has also placed people fleeing Sudan there, out of the way.

Author Ben Rawlence visited Dadaab with the NGO Human Rights Watch.

He has built a powerful picture of life in the camp through exhaustive interviews with nine residents about their lives and their hopes.

Tawane grew up in Dadaab, but is now a youth leader, taking risks for Western aid workers too scared to leave their compounds.

Muna is a Somali woman who arrived at the camp as a baby. She is now under threat from her family for marrying a Sudanese man. Others have fled famine or more recent wars.

Rawlence says Dadaab is “the meeting point between two contradictory arcs of the twenty-first century: the rule of law that had spawned the international humanitarian system and…the chaos unleashed by the end of the colonial project to subjugate and carve up the globe.”


He shows how Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011 was not the simple anti-terrorist manoeuvre it was presented as at the time. And it made the situation much worse for the refugees.

The refugees are not allowed to work. But they cannot survive on United Nations rations alone, particularly as they have to constantly pay bribes to police and officials.

So a vast and complex black market has grown up.

The refugees dream of being resettled in the West, as a tiny minority of others have been.

Rawlence writes, “The young men and women at the youth centre were the ones left behind, who followed the progress of their friends abroad on Facebook.”

They set the nightmare of their current lives in limbo against the risk and expense of trying to get to the West.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence. Portobello £14.99. Available from Bookmarks. Go to bookmarks or phone 020 7637 1848

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