The sudden displacement of over 300,000 people over a very short period of time is difficult to fathom, yet it is set to happen soon with the recent announcement by Kenya’s government that they will close the Dadaab refugee camp in North Central Kenya—the most populous refugee camp in the world. The camp is set to close by November 2016, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Somalis, back to their country of origin. To put the sheer size of the camp in perspective, it is just over half the population of Vancouver, and has enough people within its confines to be Kenya’s third largest city.
Kenya is citing security concerns as the reason for the camp’s closure, with claims that attacks on its soil have been planned there by the militant al Qaeda-allied group Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab’s plans to eradicate the Somali government to make way for a country under the control of Sharia law continue to destabilize peace in the region.
Originally set up as a temporary transit camp for those fleeing the horrors of civil war in Somalia, continuous conflict and violence in Somalia has forced the camp to remain in place for over 20 years. Many who live in the camp were born there, and have never set foot in their home country.
Somalia remains politically unstable to this day, and just last month Al Shabaab launched terror attacks in the nation’s capital of Mogadishu, targeting the peacekeeping efforts of the UN-backed African Union Mission. Nevertheless, at this moment some Somali refugees have already begun a voluntary repatriation process by returning home. Yet many are raising concerns about the possibility of involuntary repatriation in the months to come following the dissolution of the camp.
To add to the massive influx of Somali refugees coming from Kenya, there are 1.1 million internally displaced Somalis, which means that the implementation of urgent solutions addressing the needs of thousands of displaced people is essential, and meaningful resettlement projects are desperately needed. Resettlement efforts will need to address the complications associated with communicating important information about available services to such a large population of people at one time.
Since 2014, PeaceGeeks has been developing the Services Advisor app to help address the way refugees can access services. Initially employed in Jordan, the PeaceGeeks Services Advisor App works to improve the quality of life for displaced people in times of crisis by improving access to information on essential services, which includes everything from water and sanitation, to services for those who have experienced domestic abuse. Currently, services directory information is shared via traditional paper-based methods. PeaceGeeks has recently begun working with UNHCR Somalia to deploy Services Advisor to support the needs of Somali returnees as the closure moves forward.
The Services Advisor app increases the efficiency of sharing information by replacing current and largely defunct systems of manual record keeping, which are woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the urgent needs of large populations in flux. The idea is to replace the old system with one that can be accessed by a wide variety of stakeholders simultaneously for improving services access and the coordination of services provision. This includes service providers, UNHCR, refugees and donors alike by putting all information online. By implementing Services Advisor before the mass resettlement process begins, UNHCR aims to make the process of resettlement a more dignified experience for returnees by helping them to get a better grasp of what services are available and where.
This will be all the more important to refugees who have been absent from the country for over 20 years, and to returnees who have never actually been to Somalia to help them make informed decisions about their return.
In order to create meaningful resettlement projects, web applications like this have the ability to improve communications infrastructure and streamline the process of how aid is distributed in times of crisis. PeaceGeeks is currently in conversation with UNHCR representatives in Iraq, Lebanon,Turkey and Greece about deploying the app in those countries as well, and is also considering the viability of deploying the app across all UNHCR initiatives.