Somali ‘climate refugees’ in Kenya: a consideration and a suggestion

by nathan thanki

There is a Somali proverb that asserts; “Sorrow is like rice in the store; if a basketful is removed every day, it will come to an end at last.” In a case of tragic irony, circumstances in Somalia have conspired to add two baskets of sorrow for every one removed. Regarding rice the proverb has proved only too poignant, especially since the devastating drought of early 2011. The resulting famine has meant that food production will remain below average until at least 2012 (Weir, Blätter, & Gabaudan, 2011). A staggering 13 million people in the Horn of Africa region were affected (Weir, Blätter, & Gabaudan, 2011). The 2011 drought, flood, and famine were the frontline of humanity’s interaction with a warming world and a changing climate.

This post will examine the plight of a specific group—Somalis displaced by these environmental factors—within the larger complex web of displacement in the region. After contextualising in the human cost of this situation and the specific needs of these people, we will overview the academic debate around terminology and policy. Some hints at policy recommendations include: making Somalia governable, establishing guiding principles on environmentally displaced people, ensuring adequate financial support for increased humanitarian efforts, pursuing a more official status, investigating the possibility of return, and promoting sustainable development and environmental awareness through various forms of education. Throughout, the terms “environmentally displaced,” “environmental refugee,” and “climate refugee” are used somewhat interchangeably. Acknowledging the contentiousness around these definitions, no legal or official meaning is implied by this.

A third section begins to outline a project plan that aims to foster environmental and social harmony through education. I contend that any long term strategy to cope with the effects of environmental change on refugee situations will only be successful if accompanied by well-planned education policies and projects.

The front lines of climate change

While issues around climate change and refugees are extremely contentious in academic and policy circles, we must first consider the human face of climate change in Somalia. Forced to leave their land due to years of insufficient rains and changes in the El Nino system, many Somalis (and others in the Horn) gathered up what little possessions they had and set off in search of relief (Dahir & Perry, 2011). Somalia has always been arid, but half a century ago droughts were rare and famine rarer. Now Somalia is the front line of humanities encounter with climate change. It is a cruel irony that when the much needed rains did come, they came with a vengeance. A desertified land cannot cope with the heavy rains, and the result is flooding. Many drought-affected Somalis were forced to flee yet again, becoming internally displaced for a second time, by the floods which brought with them increased risks of malaria, acute water diarrhoea and the contamination of drinking aquifers (OCHA, 2011). The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated there were some 4 million food insecure Somalis, 450,000 of them malnourished children, and at least 3.3 million in need of emergency water and sanitation (OCHA, 2011).

To make matters worse, insecurity and general lawlessness in Somalia have hampered local resilience as well as the humanitarian response. The militant group (terrorists in US parlance) al-Shabaab were reportedly forcibly returning displaced people to their lands (OCHA, 2011). US government sanctions impeded the aid response by refusing funding to agencies which interacted with al-Shabaab in order to gain access (Dahir & Perry, 2011). To this political instability, climate change adds its own tensions, as “demand for precious and scarce resources such as water and grazing land is leading to conflict, followed by displacement, more environmental degradation and more conflict” (Needham, 2009, p. 1). Indeed, wars in the region are usually rooted in competition for resources. Climate change serves to intensify that fighting. Food prices will increase with temperature, violent competition will increase and with no other choice but to stay and suffer, people will leave. After all, “unliveable places produce refugees” (Perry, 2010, p. 1)

With the situation rapidly becoming a living hell, thousands of Somalis left once again. Many went to northern Kenya, where the refugee complex Dadaab (3 camps together) awaited. This exodus was horrific, with parents forced to choose which dying child to carry (Dahir & Perry, 2011). And Dadaab was no sanctuary, even after such a journey. Built some 20 years ago, with a capacity of 90,000, it was at the time home to roughly 300,000 (mostly Somali) refugees (Weir, Blätter, & Gabaudan, 2011). In the aftermath of the drought, famine, and flooding, another 152,000 Somali refugees made their way to Dadaab (OCHA, 2011), by now the world’s biggest refugee camp (European Commission, 2011). Conditions in Dadaab have never been far away from desperate, but the surge of refugees fleeing drought in Somalia added even further to the milieu of difficulties that life in Dadaab entails.

Case in point: Dadaab complex

Problems common to many refugee camps are also present in Dadaab: widespread thefts, increased threat of violence and rape, malnutrition, lack of water, lack of education, lack of mobility, and increased threat of disease (Weir, Blätter, & Gabaudan, 2011). Dadaab is close to the border with southern Somalia. This means that the entire area it is in is also vulnerable to the same impacts of climate change as the Horn. The 2011 drought contributed to the malnourishment of 3.8 million Kenyans. Indeed, Dadaab has seen intense flooding before—in 1997, 2003, and 2006—which caused devastation and more movement of people (Needham, 2009). The population of Kenyans in the surrounding area are mostly pastoral and therefore vulnerable to any climate change and environmental degradation (European Commission, 2011). Many (up to 1 million ) have been forced to abandon pastoralism, instead fleeing to wherever there is food aid (Adow, 2008). Inevitably, the presence of a large and growing refugee population creates tensions. This has manifested in competition for firewood, but is prevalent wherever one vulnerable group is afforded aid while another suffers. Despite their long history of assisting their northern neighbours, Kenyans are growing frustrated with the current refugee situation (Herlinger, 2012). Increasingly, host communities and refugees are coming into conflict over trees for firewood and building poles (European Commission, 2011).

The fresh refugees in Dadaab have many of the same problems as those who have been there for twenty years, the familiar trauma, hunger, meaninglessness, and health issues, but with the additional burden of not being legally considered refugees at all. Many are extremely malnourished after their long walk to Kenya. Many have totally lost their ability to feed themselves—with their livestock dead and their crops failed they have nothing to trade or sell. The new refugees have no hope of being whisked away to the safety of some Western country, and nor can they hope for integration into Kenya: the Kenyan government has made it clear this option is off the table (European Commission, 2011). As they add to the gargantuan numbers of Dadaab—which has no significant outflow mechanism—so too do they add to the pressure on that already fragile environment. This singles them out for animosity from the host population and the established refugee population. It also reduces their (and everyone else’s) ability to meet their needs in their new ‘home’. The needs of the new refugees in Dadaab cannot be addressed separately from the old refugees, or even the host population. Whole region strategies have to be considered. That said, they present some specific opportunities for environmental education. As people who have suffered directly from environmental change in their own homes, they have a special need to learn and/or share good environmental management strategies. Whether they return to Somalia or stay in Dadaab—they will need these strategies.

The difficulty of definitions

But how can we deal with a problem that doesn’t officially exist? As was previously mentioned, the concept and term “environmental/climate refugees” is contentious at both the civil society and government levels. Although in use as a term since the 1970s, it was Norman Myer who made it popular (Boano, Zetter, & Morris, 2008). Myers defines them as “people who no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, and other environmental problems, together with the associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty” (Myers, 2002, p. 609). However, predictions about what impacts environmental change will have on migration range from dismissive to sensational, but a mid-range guess is around 200 million by 2050 (Warner, 2011). More worryingly, estimates for the Horn of Africa are not good: approximately 4 million people were displaced by environmental factors in the region in 1995 (Myers, 2002), their numbers adding—as in Dadaab—to the masses of Conventional refugees.

The arguments over definitions and predictions do not appear to be abating.  Briefly, we should survey the landscape of this disaccord in general. Then we can see what policies should be adopted in order to work towards solutions for the environmentally displaced Somalis in Dadaab: how to best cope with their plight in its current context (mixed up in a broader humanitarian disaster), and how to empower them so that should the political conditions be right, they are able to return to their lives and livelihoods.

Much of the tension around the definition lies in the challenge of separating environmental factors from other drivers of migration. This cannot be done easily as environmental degradation is usually a slow onset process that affects people who are directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood (Dun & Gemenne, 2008). Although they have clearly left because of environmental factors, the new Somalis in Dadaab don’t fit neatly into the Convention. Other factors often weigh in to force “environmental refugees” to leave: landlessness, homelessness, unemployment, rapid urbanization, extensive government corruption or failure, ethnic violence, conventional conflict (as in Somalia), and increased rate of disease (Myers, 2002). But even if environmental degradation is the primary ‘push’ factor, how can we officially determine that it’s not the economic incentive—the ‘pull’ factor—that is the most important factor in determining migration? Further problematizing the policy response to climate change in the context of refugee studies is the lack of a base of empirical evidence (Black, et al., 2008). It is widely agreed that applied research is badly needed into how climate change will influence economic drivers of migration along traditional migration routes (such as Somalis to Kenya (Black, et al., 2008; Warner, 2011; Myers, 2002).

Many argue that giving environmentally displaced people some kind of official home under the refugee umbrella is counter-productive: although the attention to the plight of refugees generally would be welcomed, no actual good would come. Either too wide a definition will result in a net loss of assistance to those in need, or it would play into the hands of governments who wish to classify everyone as an environmental, and therefore economic, migrant to whom they have no responsibility (Dun & Gemenne, 2008) (Stavropolou, 2008). I am of the opinion that as a matter of compassion, environmentally displaced people should be thought of at the very least conceptually as equally vulnerable compared to Conventional refugees. However, given the current situation in Dadaab and the speed at which international policy making progresses, I would rather not put too many eggs in that basket. Besides the very slim possibility of getting resettled to the US or Canada—which in itself is not ideal, nor an easy process—what benefits come with a broader legal definition? We should not rule out an approach that gives (some kind of) legal status, for although one can say it is impossible to determine if climate change is the determining factor, it is certainly as valid as any other (Myers, 2002) and even under the Convention it suffices to prove that one of the conditions (discrimination based on race, religion, political belief etc.) is present, not that it is the primary condition (Dun & Gemenne, 2008). Given that the world has not dealt with the root causes of climate change and environmental destruction, we can unfortunately assume that they will occur at an increasingly rapid rate, even if we don’t know exactly how this will play out regarding displacement. The circular relationship between conflict and environmental degradation—competition over scarce resources causes conflict, which degrades the environment further, which increases tensions—needs to be understood within broader political and social contexts (Myers, 2002).

What’s to be done?

It is perhaps more interesting and instructive to note the similarities this debate has to the one 20 years ago surrounding internally displaced people (IDPs), which eventually yielded Guiding Principles (Stavropolou, 2008). Another such set of principles for the environmentally displaced could work well—bringing attention to the issues, linking policy and research, incorporating affected population feedback, and tying in efforts of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to fund adaptation with countries’ development plans to build local resilience (Black, et al., 2008) (Myers, 2002) (Warner, 2011).

Foreign aid clearly needs to be redirected and augmented, in addition to beefing up of UNHCR’s budget. This is only to cope with meeting the basic needs in the camps effectively and should be seen as an underlying policy. The UNFCCC should also work to ensure pledges to the Green Climate Fund ($100b annually by 2020) should be forthcoming, accessible and directed at adaptation. More collaboration between the UNFCCC and UNHCR will build up knowledge for a proactive rather than reactive approach to environmental migrants (Warner, 2011).

Due to the impracticality and unlikeliness of mass resettlement to developed countries, and the growing inability and unwillingness of the Kenyan state to care for the burgeoning Dadaab complex, research into the potential return of Somalis is needed. To avoid yet more tragedy, the “right questions” (Stone, 2008) need to be asked regarding this possibility. What conditions does their return demand, for example? At a very base level, return will not be possible while Somalia is in such a state of anarchy. But even if it were, migration will occur so long as livelihoods are being undermined by a changing climate. Droughts increase vulnerability to future droughts by killing livestock and eradicating food stocks, unpredictable weather systems undermine livelihoods (Black, et al., 2008). As the already fragile environment of Dadaab is being further degraded by competition for resources, we are more likely to see increases in conflict and environmental damage itself.

The best approach is one of adaptation through education. No amount of orders from above will change harmful environmental behaviours (UNHCR, 2001, p. 55). But what kind of educational policies can shift behaviour to be more sustainable and ultimately improve the lives of all populations—host Kenyans, old Somali refugees, and new climate refugees—while also empowering newcomers with additional resilience that may help if ever they return?

Environmental Education is not the preserve of the West

Any educational project should be informed by the substantial work carried out by the UNHCR and International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), who have published guidebooks on environmental education in the context of refugee camps (UNESCO, 1997) (International Institute for Educational Planning, 2010) (UNHCR, 2001). Criteria of the UNHCR environmental guidelines should also be followed, namely that approaches be cost effective, include participation of all local stakeholders, integrate with other environmental management and humanitarian efforts, and be preventative rather than reactive in an ad-hoc manner (UNHCR, 1998, p. 11).

In Dadaab, there are 15 primary schools serving 17,000 children in the refugee population, and one local secondary school that some refugee children attend (UNESCO, 1997). Clearly the educational situation as a whole is not adequate. As various inhabitants of Dadaab have testified, An environmental education project would refocus attention on education in general and would allow for broader improvements—building more classrooms, regenerating old ones. To begin with an outreach campaign would be needed to encourage children to come and their parents to let them. Methods to facilitate this would be to link up with food programmes at the camp to give hot meals at the school for children. Another would be to give roles to women in the classroom, alleviating some concerns about security of children and involving more of the adult community in the education process. To ensure a broad reach, both of the initial advertisement and then later of the environmental messaging, requires the use of formal, non-formal and informal channels that incorporate different media and languages (UNHCR, 1998) (ProAct Network, 2010) (International Institute for Educational Planning, 2010).

Ideally a baseline study would be carried out to establish both educational needs and environmental attitudes and behaviours. This should be done mindful of the dynamics between the three main divisions of people: hosts, previous refugees, and new climate refugees. These initial assessments would also bring together most of the NGO and UN actors to assess how environmental education can be brought into the camp as part of broader environmental management strategies, and in a way that reinforces any environmental themes in other programmes. Any discussions crafting the details of the project should involve in a central way not only representatives of the refugee population (teachers, students, parents) but also civil society (NGO workers in other projects, UN staff,) government (Kenyans education and development officials) and importantly, the host population (teachers, leaders). To avoid future conflict over environmental problems, the host population must be involved in the process. No doubt they, as the established population, will have valuable know how that can be incorporated into the educational project. They will also be able to outline to project designers what the local laws and traditions are regarding the environment.

Obviously a project of this ambition requires a lot of planning, money, training, and coordination. There is no formula for sustainable development. For every problem anticipated, there will be five more that come up. And Dadaab is an extremely challenging, volatile, and complex setting. Beyond camp security (shaky at best), the risks are great: environmental education is paramount to environmental sustainability, and that sustainability is paramount to survival. But a self-reflective, continuous, multi-sectoral approach, based on local knowledge and supported by public information and mutually agreed short term regulation that clearly sets out the rules could yield tangible results in terms of environmental, and therefore lifestyle, improvement (International Institute for Educational Planning, 2010) (UNHCR, 1998). Luckily, UNESCO has already run a (poorly documented) pilot project in environmental and peace education in Dadaab. A future project can build on their efforts, benefit from the resources they developed (teacher training, pupil workbooks, lesson plans etc) and learn from their lessons. Refugees should be involved early on in planning, formal and non-formal channels should be harmonised, teacher training should be participatory, activities should be linked to other projects, and the largest costs will be occurred in start-up (UNESCO, 1997).  

Perhaps the most obvious and most reactive potential criticism to such a project is that it is culturally condescending—a western guilt over environmental damage hoisted on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth. While it is always good to be on the lookout for greenwash, it must also be understood that sustainable development is not about green consumerism or imperialism, it is about ensuring that present needs are met without sacrificing future generations’ abilities to meet the same needs. The effort to bring a sustainable development paradigm to people who need it urgently is not a cheap, quick, or easy task. Efforts to do so need commitment across the board, and they need proper measures of accountability, transparency, gender/cultural sensitivity and supporting research. If those conditions are met, Somalis in Dadaab could just maybe start removing some of those baskets of sorrow.


References and Resources

*To learn more about conditions in Dadaab from the perspectives of Somalis who are either currently living there or have now left, see the excellent “Somalis in Maine,” referenced below.

Adow, M. (2008, October). Pastoralists in Kenya. Forced Migration Review(31), p. 34.

Black, R., Kniveton, D., Skeldon, R., Coppard, D., Murata, A., & Schmidt-Verkerk, K. (2008). Demographics and Climate Change: Future Trends And their Policy Implications for Migration. Brighton: University of Sussex.

Boano, D., Zetter, P., & Morris, D. (2008). Environmentally Displaced People: Understanding the linkages between environmental change, livelihoods and forced migration. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Dahir, M., & Perry, A. (2011, September 5). A Famine We Made? Time, pp. 38-41.

Dun, O., & Gemenne, F. (2008, October). Defining ‘environmental migration’. Forced Migration Review(31), pp. 10-11.

European Commission. (2011). “Climate Refugees” – Legal and policy responses to environmentally induced migration. Brussels: European Parliment. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from

Herlinger, C. (2012, January 19). “Food becomes Everything”. National Catholic Reporter, 48(6), 20-21.

Huiseman, K. A., Hough, M., Langellier, K. M., & Nordstrom Toner, C. (2011). Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents. Berkely: North Atlantic Books.

International Institute for Educational Planning. (2010). Chapter 4.4 Environmental Education. In International Institute for Educational Planning, Guidebook for planning education in emergencies and reconstruction (pp. 85 – 101). Paris: International Institute for Educational Planning. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from

Myers, N. (2002). Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 357(1420), 609-613. Retrieved February 27, 2012, from

Needham, A. (2009, December 18). Nowhere to hide from climate change in Kenyan refugee camp. Retrieved from UNHCR:

OCHA. (2011, October 25). Somalia Famine and Drought Situation Report 19. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from Internal Displacement:$file/OCHA+Somalia+Situation+Report+No.+19-25+October+2011.pdf

Perry, A. (2010, December 13). Land of Hope. Time, pp. 68-73.

ProAct Network. (2010, October). Environmental Management in Camp Settings. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from ProAct Network:

Stal, M. (2011). Flooding and Relocation: The Zambezi River Valley in Mozambique. International Migration, 49, 125-143.

Stavropolou, M. (2008, October). Drowned in definitions? Forced Migration Review(31), pp. 11-12.

Stone, D. (2008, October). Asking the right questions. Forced Migration Review(31), pp. 42 – 43.

UNESCO. (1997). Refugee Education in Kenya: Education for a Peaceful and Sustainable Future. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from UNESCO:

UNHCR. (1998). Refugee Operations and Environmental Management: Key Principles for Decision Makers. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from

UNHCR. (2001). Refugee Operation and Environmental Management: A Handbook of Selected Lessons Learned from the Field. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from

Warner, K. (2011, May). Climate Change Induced Displacement: Adaptation Policy in the Context of the UNFCCC Climate Negotiations. Retrieved from UNHCR:

Weir, E. A., Blätter, A., & Gabaudan, M. (2011, December 12). Horn of Africa: Not The Time To Look Away. Retrieved from Refugees International:


One thought on “Somali ‘climate refugees’ in Kenya: a consideration and a suggestion

  1. Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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