NAIROBI, Kenya — “Life in Somalia is not life, it is full of bullets; there is no life in Somalia,” said 70-year-old Maryam. Before she fled to Kenya from her home in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market, Maryam's eldest daughter was shot to death and her son was hit in the jaw with shrapnel.

Maryam's route to Nairobi included 18 months in Dagahaley camp, one of three dust-blown refugee settlements of sticks and plastic sheeting that are home to more than a quarter of a million Somalis. The settlements are the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

“In the camps there are no bullets,” Maryam said, “but life is hard.”

Others would rather brave the bullets. Mohamed, a 20-year-old Somali man who came to Nairobi this month from another of the refugee camps, is unsparing in his criticism of the settlements. “Life is better in Somalia than in Ifo camp," he said. "Only the security is better; the conditions are terrible.”

As one human rights activist put it, “The refugees are coming from nothing to nothing, in a place where there is nothing.”

The three Somali camps were designed for 90,000 refugees. But by the end of this year, they are expected to house four times that number. In August 2008, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the camps, around Dadaab town in northeastern Kenya, were full. The escalating violence in Somalia has meant that in the past year 165 people a day fled to the camps.

At least 13 percent of the refugees in the camps are malnourished. Disease outbreaks are common. In February, cholera struck.

Aid groups are warning of a looming catastrophe in the camps. Oxfam recently described a possible humanitarian emergency, the product of insufficient funding, overcrowding and water shortages. UNHCR has appealed to donors for $92 million for the camps around Dadaab and has asked for more land to be allocated to refugees.

For Somali refugees outside the settlement camps, run-ins with the Kenyan police can have serious consequences. Kenya's predatory national police force — which is regularly accused of corruption, brutality and murder — treats Somali refugees found outside the camps as fair game. The police have extorted money and, according to a report published March 30 by New York-based Human Rights Watch, have forcibly deported “hundreds, possibly thousands” of refugees since the border was shut.

The police also prevent Somali refugees from leaving the squalid camps in the country's parched northeast. In some cases, refugees have been beaten, tortured and raped. In many cases, new arrivals have been forced to pay about $50 to avoid deportation and be allowed to reach the camps.

In 2007, Kenyan officials closed the country's 424-mile border with Somalia, citing fears of Islamic terrorism and pointing to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassy in 1998 and on an Israeli-owned hotel in 2002.

“Kenya has legitimate security concerns and a right to control its borders, but its borders can’t be closed to refugees fleeing fighting and persecution,” said Gerry Simpson, the refugee researcher at HRW. “People escaping violence in Somalia need protection and help, but instead face more danger, abuse and deprivation."

Under international law, it's illegal to forcibly repatriate terrified refugees to the world's most completely failed state, Simpson said. But in this case, the alternative has been confining refugees to a ghetto that has been growing since 1991.

An unknown number of Somali refugees — estimates range from the tens of thousands to more than 100,000 — have made their way to Nairobi. To get there they must pass a bridge outside the town of Garissa, which refugees call "halak," or "cobra," for the police who solicit bribes before allowing Somalis to pass.

Those who make it to Nairobi tend to settle in Eastleigh, the capital’s hectic Somali quarter. There is a craziness about Eastleigh: Unpaved roads run past bustling markets; women in hijabs sell khat, a plant chewed as a stimulant; men sit on plastic chairs at tea shops; the muezzin blast the call to prayer from mosques.

But this is no slum. Everyone is doing business, trading, making a buck, which will be sent to family and clan-members still in Somalia via a trust-based system called "hawala."

Having escaped the refugee camps, Maryam now lives with her surviving daughter and four adopted girls in a single square room in an apartment block on the edge of Eastleigh.

Among them, they share two wooden beds in a room hung with printed fabric and garish pictures of Mecca and the Koran. There is a small color television set in one corner and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. But after war-torn Mogadishu and the wretched Dagahaley camp, Maryam considers this luxury.

Marcus Bleasdale of VII Photo Agency took the photographs accompanying this story. For more on his work in Somalia, visit Human Rights Watch.

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