A devastating fire that razed a market in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex last weekend has highlighted the need for better fire safety preparedness and response in the world’s largest refugee camp.
The fire started on Sunday evening in the market of Dagahaley camp, one of five camps in the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya. None of the 124,000 mainly Somali refugees in Dagahaley was hurt, but 80 per cent of the market was destroyed. Some of neighbouring residential blocks were also damaged and looted as the residents fled.
The market had grown into a city within the camp over the last 20 years, with winding streets, narrow alleys and large, roofed interconnected bazaars. Almost anything was for sale in the market, from vegetables to mobile phones. Now most of this lies in ruins and ashes and many people have lost their property and means of livelihood.
Survivors tell UNHCR staff that on Sunday, people who had just sat down for their evening meal to break their Ramadan fast, rushed out of their houses when they heard shouts of fire. Others who had gone to the market for evening shopping were running away from the enormous flames, fanned by a strong breeze. The narrow streets became clogged with people, donkey carts, wheelbarrows and vehicles trying to escape.
Eyewitness Mohammed Issack describes the chaotic scene when he and other volunteers tried to fight the fire: “I was faced with extreme heat and almost suffocating blaze and smoke. I rushed to join a team of young Samaritans struggling to stop the fire, but it was too late! The fire was well armed, it managed to defeat us, ambushing and bombarding us with small ammunition consisting of exploding cosmetics, oil and petroleum products. Nothing could be done. Some people opened their shops to the public to take whatever they could instead of leaving everything to burn down, while others were just standing, watching their belongings turning into ashes.”
People’s shock and despair quickly turned to anger. A group of women among the on-lookers expressed what many of them felt: “This is even worse than what has happened recently, all the attacks and gunshots at night, the bomb blasts in daytime, the police retaliation! What kind of asylum right do we have to enjoy or to be proud of? And who is going to compensate us for this great loss, we have no government even to console us!”
Their anger also turned towards UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, whose rescue efforts came too late to save most of the market.
Fafa Attidzah, who heads UNHCR’s sub-office in Dadaab, acknowledged that the response could have been quicker and stronger, but explained that aid agencies are restricted by current challenges on the ground.
“The volatile security situation makes it impossible to monitor what is going on in the camps on a 24-hour basis. The fire started at night, when no agency staff were present in the camp,” said Attidzah. “Also, the UNHCR fire engine vehicles were too small to deal with a fire of this magnitude. Another issue is that neither agency staff nor the refugees themselves have been adequately trained and drilled for a major fire situation.”
The UN refugee agency and its partner agencies are assessing the damage and the impact of the fire on the community members. Those hardest hit will receive assistance to help them recover.
In close consultation with the refugee community, plans are underway to rebuild the Dagahaley market in a sensible and safe way, in strict accordance with Kenyan laws and building regulations, so that a similar catastrophe will not happen again.
UNHCR, its partners and the Kenyan authorities in Dadaab have also established a working group to put in place a more efficient and effective emergency response structure in case of a major fire emergency. There is also an urgent need to purchase a proper fire engine vehicle in Dadaab.