City of Thorns

Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Ben Rawlence

Published: 21 January 2016
Trade Paperback, Royal PB
153x234mm, 400 pages
ISBN: 9781846275876

Other Editions


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Published: 1 September 2016
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 400 pages
ISBN: 9781846275890

Ebook Available


To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a 'nursery for terrorists'; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.

Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, deep within the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben Rawlence became a first-hand witness to a strange and desperate limbo-land, getting to know many of those who have come there seeking sanctuary. Among them are Guled, a former child soldier who lives for football; Nisho, who scrapes an existence by pushing a wheelbarrow and dreaming of riches; Tawane, the indomitable youth leader; and schoolgirl Kheyro, whose future hangs upon her education.

In City of Thorns, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp and to sketch the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. Lucid, vivid and illuminating, here is an urgent human story with deep international repercussions, brought to life through the people who call Dadaab home.

About the author

Image of Ben Rawlence

BEN RAWLENCE is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa. He is the author of Radio Congo, and has written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, and Prospect. He lives in the Black Mountains in Wales with his family. More about the author


‘[An] ambitious, morally urgent new book’ Jennifer Senior



‘[This] remarkable book comes as a timely reminder that the vast majority of the world's refugee population will never see European shores... Rawlence is brilliant on Dadaab's complex material life and what seems like a huge experiment in a mixed economy... [a] timely, disturbing and compelling book’ Megan Vaughan

City of Thorns elegantly portrays a place and its people at the very fringes of our society, yet also at the heart of its problems. Written with great integrity and insight, this is an urgent, important book that needs to be read’ Owen Sheers, author

City of Thorns is a brilliant if haunting book... at once both an intimate story of redemption and hope, a prayer for the innocent, and a damning universal indictment of all those whose monstrous acts and vainglorious ambitions unleash the dogs of war’ Wade Davis, author

‘A great read... stunning’ Andrew Marr

‘A lyrical and captivating book. Not since Kapuscinski's The Soccer War has an author seamlessly combined beautiful storytelling and journalistic detail together with such poignancy. Rawlence brings to life a world overlooked by most and forgotten by too many. City of Thorns is a book of rare power. Flawless’ Samantha Nutt, M.D., founder of the international humanitarian organization War Child and author

‘A powerful reminder of the failure of the current refugee system... The system is broken, but not Nisho. He and the other characters in Dadaab are sparks of hope in the face of unimaginable hardship’

‘A superb work that highlights the essential humanity of those faceless masses buffeted by events and desperately seeking salvation in one of the world's most troubled spots, [and offers an] outstanding glimpse into the shattered and insecure lives of those on the frontline of the global migration crisis... This is a highly readable book. It is also a damning indictment of the hypocrisy behind camps, which offer such a pat solution to refugee crises for aid agencies and politicians... These are stories that need to be heard’ Ian Birrell

‘An absorbing book, full of heart... [a] thoughtful portrait’ Katrina Manson

‘An achievement in reportage that few have matched... Rawlence has written a book that just might change the world, or, at the very least, awaken readers to one criminally forgotten corner of it. A tour de force’ Booklist, starred review

‘At a time when western governments are obsessing over migrant flows, City of Thorns offers unique insights into what prompts people to abandon their ancestral homes in the first place and the dreams that send them questing for a better life. Researching this book can't have been easy. Ben Rawlence is to be congratulated not just for his accessible writing style, but for his modesty, pluck and determination’ Michela Wrong, author

‘Ben Rawlence's intimate, vivid portrait of the forgotten refugees in Dadaab is a much needed effort to close the humanity gap between the West and the rest. A must read’ Kim Ghattas, BBC Washington correspondent

‘Brilliantly details the intimate histories of residents of Dabaab’ Kevin Nance

‘By combining his own experience with interviews with residents of Dadaab, he makes the human rights crisis vivid and immediate for readers... Compelling’

‘Compassionate and powerful, this book gets to the heart of the tragedy of Somalia, and the struggles that face those displaced by war and want in eastern Africa. To better understand the current crisis of migration in our modern world, start here’ David Anderson, professor of African History

‘Detailed, knowledgeable, empathetic and brilliant, everyone should read this book’ Nadifa Mohamed, author of Black Mamba Boy

‘Exceptional’ Nancy Rommelmann


‘Magisterial [and] vivid... [The refugees' predicament is extraordinary, their travails gripping... It chronicles the lives of people trapped in soul-eroding tedium, yet it moves like a thriller’ Jill Leovy

‘Rawlence can write with beauty [...] but the lyricism never distracts from the precision of his reporting... Rawlence's aim is to make distant lives matter, and in that he succeeds... In Rawlence's hands, refugees become individuals... Rawlence teases out a narrative that, like Dadaab, pulsates with life’ Tristan McConnell

‘Rawlence explores Dadaab through nine of its inhabitants, portraying them with complexity and compassion, while also critiquing the counterterror policies that have done little, he argues, to bring stability to East Africa... He provides psychological portraits of his characters, recording their lives with sympathy and without moralizing. Tragedy and horror, rape and bombs, shape lives in the camp, but so do love and ambition, jealousy and luck’

‘Rawlence provides an intricate portrait of this sprawling settlement’

‘Rawlence spent several years in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's biggest refugee camp - and this is his account of the lives of several of its inhabitants. For all Europe's panic about the recent wave of migrants, City of Thorns underlines how the vast majority of the world's 60 million displaced never leave hellholes like Dadaab.’ Patrick Kingsley

‘Rawlence vividly conveys the strain of living in the camp, always hungry, just waiting: [a] masterful account. Next time someone refers derisorily to "a bunch of migrants", get them to read this book’ Christine Lamb

‘Rawlence writes about depression as a blanket that cloaks the women in the camp and emasculates the men, his aptitude for human emotion and motivation, impeccable. And this is perhaps what Rawlence is best at conveying: every life is a life, so precious that you flee and starve and hide and grind to keep it... Wonderful’ Kea Krause

‘Rawlence writes deeply and movingly about the suffering incurred by inhabitants of the world's largest refugee camp... An intimate yet searing document of human pain’ Nancy Powell

‘Rawlence... is more than able to move the reader... Exceptional’ Nancy Rommelman

‘Rawlence's account of this febrile life is nothing short of superb. His City of Thorns seems to be modelled on Katherine Boo's insta-classic Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and [...] he compete[s] round for round on embed and empathy. The detail he weaves into his nine intersecting narratives is [...] meticulously observed... This is [...] a clear-eyed assessment of the immense, transformative migration that is leaving no corner of the Earth unchanged... An outstanding book’

‘Remarkable... an important reminder that a vast majority of the world's refugees never get as far as a boat or a border of the developed world... Beautifully and movingly painted’ Caroline Moorehead

‘Revelatory... a lesson in politics, geography, economics and humanity... An important book that will open your eyes and your heart’ Jennifer Ridgeway

‘The benevolent image of refugee camps has been shattered by a brilliant new book by journalist Ben Rawlence [who] exposes how impoverished refugees are raped, ripped off and remorselessly exploited while well-paid officials stay in secure compounds. It is a damning indictment'’ Ian Birrell

‘The most absorbing book in recent memory about life in refugee camps’

‘The most important book I've read in a long time. Not only does it make plain modern geopolitics, and what makes a refugee, it holds deeper truths about humanity and the system we have designed to preserve it when all seems lost. I worked in these camps at the height of this crisis. I needed this book. As we face a world with more people displaced from their homes than any ever before, City of Thorns is essential reading’ Dr James Maskalyk, author

‘This gripping book about lives trapped between a rock and a hard place is a clear-minded, humanitarian insight into the desperation and resilience of the stateless’ Iain Finlayson

‘This is a book that bristles with anger and despair, but is also full of compassion and dignity. Rawlence offers no solutions, no policy prescriptions. He simply lays out these people's lives and asks us to notice them - and to care’ Robert Colvile

‘This is a vital book at a critical moment in global history’

‘To us they are just numbers, but refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are names, lives, sons, daughters, lovers, people full of hope and grit. In this book Ben Rawlence has given us a complex tapestry of refugee life without romanticising it. It is like a Bruegel picture in words. An eloquent testimony by a writer with heart’ Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author

‘Where once writers made myths, now increasingly it's the writer's job to unmake the myths created by modern media. City of Thorns is a clear-eyed account of people living in limbo and a testament both to human frailty and human resilience. By recounting the stories of a few Rawlence sheds light on all the stories of all in the refugees in all the camps that will never be told. As timely as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring - this book should be required reading’ Aminatta Forna, author

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