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Refugee camps and climate induced inequalities: An article in two voices

By Alexander Hunns & Qaabata Boru | Issue 23

Linear settlement patterns of multinational refugee communities in camp three and four sections of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (Qaabata Boru/KANERE News).

The soft glow of the setting sun blends imperceptibly with the harsh tangerine light from spotlights towering above The Wall. Reinforced but crumbling concrete, topped with tangled barbed wire like a vicious rose bush; barrels filled with concrete scattered about, tattered and worn guard towers, the barrel of a gun glinting in the last of the light. Mongooses make a mockery of the fortress by scampering up the wall in pursuit of dinner. Footsteps deadened by the thick layer of soft, Fanta-red sand. The evening walk around the perimeter of The Wall could be mistaken for the pacing of the prisoner, but The Wall demarcates the border of the sanctuary. Inside, colourful birds herald the arrival of the dawn, butterflies beat their wings like playing a silent instrument. Those inside are free, creating a prison of their own design. The effect, though, is to cage those outside in a prison of another man’s design; a liminal humanitarian space. Camps as spaces of exclusion and separation are often separated from their surroundings not by walls, but by a policy gulf. There are few observable fences or barriers that mark the camp boundary. But despite being invisible, the boundary is consequential when looking at the vulnerabilities that encamped refugees face in the face of climate hazards.

Outside of the humanitarian compound walls, we live in thatched makuti houses, mud walls, roofed with iron sheets and impermanent. These temporary shelters are prone to heat, flooding, and dust storms. Hundreds of lives have been lost as a result of disease and violence. When refugees rise up in protest, they are faced with violent police crackdowns and arrests, including the arrests of refugee journalists.

Refugee households in Dagahaley refugee camp (part of Dabaab), Kenya (Qaabata Boru/KANERE News).

On the other side of the wall, humanitarian staff live in air-conditioned houses and offices, water is plentiful and free, reflecting the harshness of the environment outside. On our side of the wall, refugees stage protests at the compound walls, the towering manifestation of inequality, due to the lack of water. The gulf between equal rights and protection even at this close proximity between those living on either side of the wall is too big.

The effects of inequality are often abundantly visible. Razor wire-topped walls cleave worlds in twain. Yet the force that creates the scars can stalk unseen. The refugee camps we are working in – variously described as sites of carceral humanitarianism – have no visible bars on the windows, they are invisible until they become perceptible when the boundary is reached and one can go no further. Recent research has shown that refugee camps in a number of countries are exposed to climate hazards at a greater rate than the rest of the hosting country. One such country is Kenya, playing host to some of the world’s largest refugee camps, Kakuma and Dadaab. The risk of harm to an individual in the face of a climate hazard is the product of their exposure, their adaptive capacity and their sensitivity. These factors can be influenced by the policy frameworks under which people are governed. Camps are often defined by their separation, or their exceptionality, and are by definition temporary. This unique situation means that while there are usually no visual boundaries that demarcate the camp and refugees are difficult to distinguish from local populations living in the region, the policy framework that governs refugee camps means that the risk of harm from a climate hazard is greater for those living within the refugee camp compared to those outside.

Kakuma continues to experience major floods linked to climate change. Roads are underwater, cars and motorbikes swept away, and homes damaged. As camp sections are divided by rivers, flooding has often posed safety, health and transportation concerns for the residents (Qaabata Boru/KANERE News).

Kakuma’s location is prone to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. The refugees and people living in these areas have suffered health problems including severe headaches, psychological disorders due to secondary displacement, high temperatures, improper sanitations, pollution, poverty, and other underlying factors of prolonged warehousing of people by the international community. The exposure to climate hazards at Kakuma has involved shortages in food, land, surface and potable water. The scramble of limited natural resources like firewood and charcoal and water at the sources have sparked conflict between both the refugees and host communities.

Dramatic photo proves flood damages on geographical sites where refugee camps have existed since 1991. Kakuma residents have endured trauma of secondary displacement under the Kenyan encampment policy (Qaabata Boru/KANERE News).

The ability of households or individuals to build their adaptive capacity, or to reduce their sensitivity, can be moderated by living under a humanitarian umbrella. A tension may exist between the core principles underpinning a humanitarian framework and policies which would enable households to build and develop adaptive capacities and reduce sensitivity to climate hazards. Humanitarian principles are typically based on the preservation of life, and the promotion of fundamental indicators like food security – which are often rigid and universal; they do not allow the assemblage of policies that best suits the idiosyncratic needs of a household. Walking through the dusty streets of Dadaab and Kakuma, avenues and roads are formed by walls of thorny bushes demarcating compounds; inside, low structures formed of UNHCR tarpaulin and colourful rags nestle under any available shade. Despite the plethora of individual stories, of families, of histories, of preferences, the world is painted a universal dusty taupe. After even the briefest rains, the stench of stagnant water invades the nostrils, the lack of drains means water pools quickly on the parched ground. People tell of their houses being overwhelmed by the rain, or destroyed by the wind that swirls across the plain from the mountains. Temporariness does not refer to a temporal arrangement. It means that, if you blink and sweep your hand, this place returns to the dust with no trace of this imaginary city remaining. All across this harsh and weather beaten landscape resilient people live fragile lives on the edge of existence. In the grip of a drought, the carcasses of animals litter the side of roads, Maribou storks stalk the landscape like the harbinger of death.

The long road to Somalia. A view of the area around the Dadaab refugee camps from the humanitarian aircraft shortly after take-off from Dadaab airstrip (Qaabata Boru/KANERE News).

Life in Kakuma is purgatory. The lack of clean drinking water, stable food supply and proper housing has been a challenge for residents of the purgatory. There are curfews and life is prearranged but a plan that doesn’t involve the resident. Kakuma refugees have often asked about the UNHCR Policy of “camp governance and participatory decision-making” – a policy that simply does not exist. They live in a vacuum of rights.

General drainage systems were never established because camps are opened on temporary ground, based on the assumptions of humanitarian actors. Therefore, in an event of emergencies and natural disasters like earthquakes and flooding, there are no mechanisms to protect residents due to the topography.

Humanitarian policies are inherently temporary, but also largely non-responsive to individual needs. Refugees are excluded from political life and have reduced agency, they surrender this for the safety of the humanitarian umbrella. In the face of climate hazards, these policies may offer some protection that their neighbours on the other side of the humanitarian cage do not have. However, examples from refugee settlements around the world highlight how refugees and particularly encamped refugee camps may face adverse outcomes in the face of climate hazards. The ability to deal with climate hazards will become the new inequality, and encamped refugee camps are at the coalface.

Camps are purposefully built far away from major cities and marketplaces. This is purposeful separation, and alienation of refugees from other citizens. With little to no checks and balances on the evaluation of humanitarian policy, camp governance, and inequality, the camp residents will remain especially vulnerable to climate hazards – our voices are not heard.

Qaabata Boru

Mr. Boru fled his homeland of Ethiopia while a second-year university student due to his political reporting, and spent the next several years in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. While there he started a fully independent refugee-led newspaper (, gaining extensive experience covering conflict. Boru has written for the LA Review of Books, the Al Jazeera, Fair Observer, RWB France, Foreign Correspondent Association of E. Africa, among other international agencies, and is presently contributing to D+C Development and Cooperation Magazine on themes of migration – while supporting KANERE remotely. He is now a permanent resident in Canada, and serves as an advisor for the Refugee Advisory Network of Canada – RAN Canada.

Alexander Hunns

Alex is a social protection researcher at UNU-MERIT, United Nations University based in Maastricht, the Netherlands. For the past five years, Alex has worked as an evaluator for UN programmes in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, conducting research among refugee households in both locations. He is now part of a team exploring the extent to which refugee settlements are exposed and vulnerable to climate hazards as part of a new research theme, including work recently published in PNAS.


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