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In the camp: refugee camps and adult education

Authors: Anton Markmiller Published:

Residents of the biggest refugee camp in the world are in need of education.

In Dadaab, Kenya, about 500,000 people live in the biggest refugee camp in the world. As the camps grow and become permanent, their residents need to gain access to education. An adult education system adapted to local needs can scale down conflict and reduce poverty. While some organizations, such as dvv international, have already taken up the task, more such schemes are needed.

The sprawl of Dadaab.

All photos: CARE Deutschland

A visit to the Dadaab refugee camp

The off-roader’s tyres struggle to plough their way through the sand. In front of us is our escort vehicle; cheerful lads sporting a range of weapons, behind us a second car with the same happy aim of bringing their visitors safe and sound back to the UN compound at the end of the day. Visibility is zero: the dust we are stirring up is everywhere.

I am on my way to Dadaab, the largest refugee ‘camp’ in the world, in northeast Kenya. It is home to 500,000 people, 95% of whom are refugees from Somalia, the rest Kenyan Somalis and Sudanese and Ugandan refugees. The ‘camp’ is now 22 years old: in fact it is not a camp, but a town with its own very special conditions.

Both the ‘camp’ and its reality have escaped the notice of the global community. Dadaab has existed for 22 years and, as many refugee camps originally set up on a provisional basis, permanent settlement structures have now developed there.
New refugees arrive every day. They have usually travelled a good 200 kilometres and arrive with their family, camels, donkeys and belongings. They are not necessarily poor people in material terms, but they are fleeing a region where it is no longer possible to live or survive. At the Dadaab reception centre, about 500 people are waiting to be let in, and that is just the first step: UNHCR registration then takes a good four weeks.

There are many initiatives aimed at improving the refugees’ situation:
There are schools to provide children with a basic education. I speak to the teachers, and they want nothing more than to give their pupils a better future.
There are centres for female victims of sexually motivated violence, where women receive psychological and legal advice. I speak to the women, and they want nothing more than their society to understand that these men’s behaviour damages the community as a whole.
There are wells providing water, which have to be dug more than 20 metres down into the desert sand. I speak to the well-diggers, and they want nothing more than for everyone in the ‘camp’ to have water to live.

I stand among the people. Next to me, a child dies and is carted away in a wheelbarrow. That is reality in Dadaab. I have also visited refugee settlements in Gaza, Egypt and Jordan on several occasions.
People live there: they settle in somehow, but know very well that they are not welcome. Is a camp of this kind, with 500,000 foreign people, conceivable in Germany or France? Hardly, but Kenya and other countries are saddled with this burden.

From a provisional to a permanent institution

You will have noticed, dear reader, that I write the word ‘camp’ in inverted commas. The reason for this is that institutions of this kind are increasingly gaining a status of their own. What starts out as a temporary stay at a place far from home, usually due to warfare or crisis, turns into a permanent stay in foreign surroundings.
Dadaab has been here for about 22 years; the Palestinian refugee camps more than twice that time. The ‘camps’ develop from tents and huts into increasingly permanent structures; the community organises itself. All the institutions needed by a town as a large, centralised, separate settlement, notably the administrative structure, utilities and social networks, are present.

An excellent description of this phenomenon can be found in the study ‘From Camp to City – Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara’ by Manuel Hertz. It cites the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben:

“Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West. The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule. In the camp, the state of exception, which was essentially a temporary suspension of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger, is given a permanent spatial arrangement.”

It is evident that we have to see these ‘camps’ as permanent reality: what was provisional is fast becoming permanent. According to UNHCR statistics, 35 million people today live outside their home countries as refugees. Often, their predecessors also were forced to flee and set up a camp in barren, dusty regions.

Children attending school in Dadaab

The need for education in refugee camps

This permanence rapidly taken on by the ‘camps’ calls for an answer, especially from adult education. Where else, if not at these camps, are people to be taught elementary ways to cooperate with one another? The connection between adult education and poverty reduction has been established (EAEA 2010; IFLL 2008; UNESCO 2005). Now action is needed.

‘Camps’ are maintained by the UNHCR and various international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which have developed a professional management system designed, on one hand, to maintain human dignity, but on the other also to keep an eye on costs.

Surely, if we invested in social justice and education in these places, the costs of socially initiated conflicts would be less ruinous in terms of human lives and capital. There is a growing need for education to help the refugees deal with their traumatic experiences of violence and flight and to find their way in their new environment.

They need to learn to recognise problems and the effects their own behaviour has – that is, to identify and use opportunities for action. That is how they can regain greater control over their own lives, or life in their community, allowing them to act instead of just react.

The refugees’ self-organisation skills need to be strengthened by encouraging them to find initiatives providing for their needs. These may be material needs such as food, water and clothing, or it may involve organising educational measures, cultural events, festivals and discussion groups.
Improved living conditions and participation in worthwhile initiatives can help prevent the refugees’ frustration and violence. This, in turn, can improve stability and safety at the ‘camp’. Encouraging the refugees to analyse problems, to develop solutions and to mobilise resources individually and as a group can help them develop the skills they will need if they can ever return home; skills which are essential to reconciliation and reconstruction.

Also, if the positive effects of such schemes can raise decision-makers’ awareness of the potential power of education for young people and adults, this can lead to sustainable action. The aim must be to include components of this kind in future action plans.

The operation of dvv international in refugee camps

The Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (dvv international), which I have run since April 2013, has recognised the need to become involved in a well-founded adult education programme in refugee camps, and will be extending its activities in this field over the months to come. Currently, projects of this kind are being developed and implemented with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan, and with internally displaced persons in Mali.

The instruments include setting up adult education centres (portable classrooms) and educational/community centres (in rented premises); training multipliers, using discursive adult education methods, providing literacy courses, running courses to help people provide for themselves, providing equipment for that purpose, and creating networks with other providers in this field, with the aim of learning from one another and transferring knowledge.

The centres, which provide courses, counselling and recreational activities, help to provide meeting points for unregistered refugees and, in particular, giving them an oasis of home life in a foreign place and improving their subjective wellbeing.

For example, the activities for Syrian refugees in the educational / community centres include professional qualifications, career advice, language courses, intercultural conflict training, gender training, extra tutoring for schoolchildren, pre-school preparation, psychosocial counselling and recreational activities.

It is important that the activities offered by centres of this kind do not distinguish between refugees and local residents. Involving the local population can play a key role: it can help break the ice, encourage people to interact and de-escalate tensions in the long term.

dvv international’s approach includes several levels. At the micro level, adult education schemes are improved and instructors trained. The schemes are adapted and designed to fit the needs of the target group, which strengthens people’s motivation to learn and their ability to shape their living situation.

At the meso level, we aim to increase the institutional reach of the organisations involved in adult education. This raises their efficiency and effectiveness, improving the schemes they provide and helping adult education become established in civil societies as a long-term poverty-reducing instrument.

Finally, at the macro level, lobbying, political dialogue and advocacy may help increase awareness of the need for adult education and lifelong learning. This can lead to more humanitarian aid from the state and civil society being channelled into this field.

The author of the article meets with inhabitants of Dadaab.


These schemes aim to play a role in improving the living situation of  refugees in the long term, as well as providing future opportunities for life after the crisis, i.e. sowing the seeds of hope. A functioning adult education system, adapted to local needs, can directly scale down conflict and reduce poverty.
Unfortunately, however, schemes of this kind are not the rule. There is thus a need for getting more involved while at the same time giving potential financial providers an understanding of this need.

Education is a human right, and access to education can determine who gets resources and opportunities in life. Non-formal adult education and lifelong learning are an indispensable part of any complete educational scheme, especially for refugees in and around camps.

Back to Dadaab: at the end of the day – and night comes quickly – my convoy winds its way back to the safe compound. Even at night, cases are processed and tasks distributed for the next day. Here, a city is being organised by a scant group of specialists who know the task can only be achieved hand in hand with the people in the ‘camp’. They have created a structure which allows people to live their lives, even in these conditions.
Incidentally, it took me three days to find out what the name ‘Dadaab’ means: a pleasant place to stay; an oasis; a home.

This article was produced in cooperation with InfoNet adult education network.

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Read more on the topic:

EAEA (2010): The Role of Adult Education in Reducing Poverty. EAEA Policy Paper.

IFLL (2008): The Impact of Lifelong Learning on Poverty Reduction. IFLL Public Value Paper 1.

UNESCO (2005): Adult Learning and Poverty Reduction. Report on the Workshop Held at the CONFINTEA Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, in September 2003.

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Anton Markmiller Dr Anton Markmiller was Secretary General of the international aid organisation CARE Germany-Luxembourg. In his current function as head of the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (dvv international) he will strongly support the work with refugees. Currently, dvv international is running adult education projects with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan, and with internally displaced persons in Mali. Email: Show all articles by Anton Markmiller
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