- Book: City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp
- Authors: Ben Rawlence
- Genre: Non-Fiction
- Year of Release: 2015
- Read 384-page hardcover edition in February 2016.
In this non fiction work by former Human Rights Watch correspondent Ben Rawlence, we enter the refugee camp of Dadaab in Kenya near the Somalian border. This is the world’s largest refugee camp, and has been around long enough for multiple generations of people to be born in what was supposed to be a temporary camp. Due to instability in Somalia and the region in general, this camp is a refuge for 400,000+ people. However, the book takes a personal approach, looking at the life and death struggle of nine individuals living in the camp, their feelings, their decisions, and how life really is inside this UN-run camp.
This was an important, shocking, and unflinching look at the Dadaab refugee camp by a thoughtful and caring writer.
Ben Rawlence has done a great job, with multiple research trips to the camp and other research in Africa and elsewhere, which he meticulously documents in Notes at the end of the book. Rawlence also helpfully sets up a list of the individuals he is following at the beginning of the book, so we can refer back when needed. His inclusion of maps and a list of further readings also adds value to this strong and well-defined book.
Rawlence does a great job at reporting the facts and keeping neutral as the author, allowing the feelings and emotions of the individuals themselves come through inside. Although when Rawlence does comment on his personal feelings and views, it works well as well. We as the reader are emotionally touched numerous times when we learn more about the poor conditions in this refugee camp that people are going through. It is shocking to read about how conditions in the camp are so poor, despite the fact so many aid agencies and the UN are supposedly running this camp.
Furthermore, Rawlence highlights the corruption of the Kenyan government, Kenyan police, and privately hired security in the camp, and showcases how that makes things more difficult for refugees caught in a huge, often out of control system. Rawlence makes a great decision by focusing on the individuals and their thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and struggles. Then when he describes the corrupt and ridiculous politics of the region, we also get a sense of things from a broader level as well, and how that impacts the individuals in the camp. Rawlence also shows how refugees are scapegoated and blamed for terrorism and other events in the region when in many cases these are based on unfounded accusations.
And it is not just the Kenyan authorities or al-Shabaab in Somalia that Rawlence points to when it comes to how the situation in the region is being poorly managed. He looks at things from a geopolitical lens as well, looking at countries in the G7 and the UN and aid agencies as well, albeit to a lesser degree.
Rawlence does an incredible job taking a complex, multi-dimensional issue, and writing a book that is accessible, understandable, and powerful. By focusing on people, he humanizes a camp with hundreds of thousands of people. We have learned about individuals, and we can understand and appreciate that these are people who just want a better life.
One other matter that could have been included is how citizens from all over the world could get involved to help. Which aid agencies are best for us to donate in? How can we help lobby politicians to be more active in this important area? Are there others we should lobby as individual citizens? Rawlence doesn’t cover these questions.
Overall though, this is a great collection of individual stories in one of the most difficult places to live in the world. In this age of migration crises and refugee crises, the subject matter of this book can’t be more important. This is a timely book, that is recommended for all.
Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.