Life in a refugee camp: could you live there?

More than a third of the world's 19.9 million refugees live in refugee camps, often without adequate food or services. The conditions vary from camp to camp, as do the chances of families returning to their homes or being resettled in countries like Australia.

From the world's largest refugee camp in Kenya to Za'atari in Jordan, which struggles to house tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, life inside the camps is something alien to most Australians. Take a closer look.

Dadaab, Kenya: The world's largest refugee camp

Location: Northeastern Kenya

Population: Between 350,000 and 500,000 people

Established: 1991 

Dadaab is a collection of three camps, all of which are full. They are run by the UNHCR and the largest camp, Hagedera, is unable to meet even basic health care services. Most of the refugees that come to the camp travel from neighbouring Somalia. Many are women and children.

A somali refugee woman with her child stand in their compound at Hagadera sector of the Dadaab refugee camp. (Getty)


This year, Kenyan authorities said the UN must close the camp after an attack by Somali al-Shabaab militants killed 148 people. The government feared the camp had become a way for al-Shabaab militants to enter the country from Somalia and said it would send thousands of refugees back there if the UN didn't act. But after international pressure, the government turned around on the issue and halted plans to close the camp.

Somali journalist Abdullahi Mire grew up in Dadaab and wrote about his experiences in an account called "Growing up in the world's largest refugee camp". In it, he described the tough living conditions faced by thousands of families like his. 

"Lack of clean water was common, and our only shelter was a plastic sheet," he wrote. "That sheet protected us from the hot sun during the day and the cold at night."

Read more about Mr Mire's experiences here and more about Dadaab here.

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Location: Northwest Kenya

Population: 180,000 

Established: 1991

Kakuma, which is Swahili for “nowhere,” houses thousands of refugees mostly from South Sudan, but also Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, D.R. Congo, Eritrea, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. 

In 2015, for the third year in a row, Kakuma camp has been receiving record numbers of refugees from South Sudan

Life in the camp is not easy, and reports of an attempted rape of a refugee girl in late 2014 ignited violence between rival South Sudanese groups within the camp. 

Some people in Kakuma refugee camp are resettled in other countries, but many have lived in the camp for more than 20 years.

Read more about Kakuma here.

A Somali refugee sits outside her tent in Kakuma. (Getty)
Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza Strip

Location: Gaza Strip

Population: Roughly 110,000 registered refugees

According to the UNRWA, (UN Relief and Works Agency) there is one food distribution centre, one healthcare centre and 11 school buildings to service all the camp's residents.

In 2014, one of those schools was hit by Israeli strike and 16 people were killed. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack, calling it "unjustifiable".

On an area of 1.4 square kilometres Jabalia refugee camp is said to be one of the most densely populated places on earth.

Unemployment has risen in the camp since the Erez border crossing into Israel was closed to Palestinian foot traffic. Previously, camp residents crossed into Israel to work, but today many rely on the UNRWA for food.

Basic hygiene is also a concern in the camp, where 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human consumption, according to the UNRWA.

A Palestinian boy who was wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a UN school in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, waits for treatment at the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahia. (Getty)


Dollo Ado refugee camp, Ethiopia

Location: Ethiopia, near the border of Somalia

Population: Roughly 207,000 

A map of the camp. (UNHCR)


The Dollo Ado refugee camp consists of five camps and has grown steadily since a drought caused famine in Somalia in 2011.

The newest camp inside Dollo Ado, the Kobe refugee camp, opened in June 2011. The camp reached its capacity at 25,000 people in August that same year. The latest population estimate was for about 40,000 people at the Kobe camp alone

Za’atri refugee camp, Jordan

Location: The border of Syria and Jordan 

Population: Almost 100,000 people

Many of the people inside Za'atari have come from Syria. Since war broke out there in 2012, some 150,000 people have been killed and more than four million people have fled the countries as refugees.

The camp has shops selling food, clothing, household equipment and even bridal wear. The main street where most of these shops are situated has been dubbed "The Champs-Élysées". It was given the name by the French military, which assisted inside Za'atari when it was first set up.

The camp even has its own circus school, called the Syrian National Circus. 

Special feature: A mother's fight to get her children back inside Za’atari

Syrian refugee Amira, 32, lives inside Za’atari and was featured on SBS's Exit Syria documentary. When the SBS team met Amiria, she was eight months pregnant and had been kicked out of her home by her husband, who had taken a new wife. Amiria was desperate to see her four children, who were living with her former husband, but access was difficult. She was also worried her husband’s family would take her new baby from her.

Exit Syria followed Amiria as she battled a "psychological war" inside Za'atari. Her brothers did not want her to have anything to do with her former husband, saying the family’s honour must come first, but her sisters-in-law said she needed to come back in order to be with her children.

Finally, she was able to see her children when a group of women arranged for them to meet her in a caravan at the camp. It was an emotional scene when Amira saw her children again. hugging them, she asked, “You don’t want to come to me?” She wass hurt after hearing the children had said they preffered their husband’s new wife to her.

Watch some of Amiria’s emotional reunion below:

Za’atari is run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. UNHCR workers provide a range of services, from health care to free food to schooling. They also try to sort out domestic disputes. Normally in Syria these problems are sorted out by the local sheik, but since the war broke out, communities have broken up, and people are separated from their trusted networks and leaders. Under Islamic law, men are allowed four wives. While rare in the cities, polygamy is more common among traditional, rural populations, which form the majority in Za’atari.

The war in Syria has turned ordinary life upside down for people here in Za’atari, and for women, that has often meant family breakdown. Since the war broke out, a sharp increase in divorce rates among Syrians has been noted. In Za'atari, women complain that their husbands don't feel restrained by the same strong social and community structures that existed at home before the war. Single, widowed or unaccompanied women in Za’atari are vulnerable without the protection of men, and married men find it increasingly easy to leave their first wives and remarry. Divorces in the camp are not considered legal under Syrian law and some men feel exempt of any official responsibility towards their wives.

Watch the full Exit Syria online documentary here.

Could you live there? Refugee camp opens in Sydney

In the month of June 2015, a refugee camp was set up in suburban Sydney to give people a glimpse of what life was like for a third of the world's refugees.

Tour guide Marie Sesay fled Sierra Leone with her family when she was a teenager. 

"Children my age were getting taken as sex slaves, and then my parents decided it was not safe anymore to live [there], so we moved to a neighbouring country called Guinea." she said.

Her parents took her and her five siblings to the Forecariah camp, near the border with Sierra Leone. She said life there was difficult.

"It was unsafe, there wasn't enough food," she said. "Some nights, we had to go without food. Poor sanitation was everywhere. It wasn't really the best place to live or have your kids live in."

Watch the full story in the video player above

Tour guide and Sierra Leone refugee Marie Sesay shares her story with primary school students. (SBS)
How you can help

If you want to help refugees and their families living in camps, or you just want to know more, there are a number of organisations you can contact. 

Find out more

UNHCRThe 1951 Refugee Convention


Syria crisis:

UNHCRRed CrossUnicefOxfamSave The ChildrenIslamic ReliefDisasters Emergency CommitteeMedecins Sans FrontiersRed Crescent MovementTearfundWorld Vision

Rohingya people:

Partners Relief and DevelopmentWe are HelpAmnesty InternationalLife for Relief and DevelopmentPenny Appeal

Dadaab refugee camp:


Help refugees around the world:

UNHCR, Medecins Sans Frontiers, Brisbane Refugee and Asylum Seeker Network, Feed The Hungry, Anglican Aid, International Refugee Crisis