Ben Rawlence
Author, Human Rights Activist

Ben Rawlence is the author of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp and Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War. Born in the UK, Rawlence worked as a policy advisor and speechwriter to the Liberal Democratic Party before running for office himself. His political work brought him in contact with serious human rights violations in Zanzibar and led to him joining the Human Rights Watch as a researcher on Africa. During 7 years with the organization working all over the continent, Rawlence became fascinated with the Dadaab refugee camp, a place that would later become the topic of his 2016 book, City of Thorns.


For HRW, Rawlence researched reports, lobbied governments, and appeared on radio and TV across the world. In 2013, Rawlence left his job and devoted himself full-time to writing and speaking.


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City of ThornsNine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

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. 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.

City of Thorns: Stories of Refugees & African Politics

Activism, Politics, and Responsible Citizenship in the 21st Century

The Craft of Non-fiction Writing

Ben Rawlence on “A Bittersweet Film Review in Kenya” for the New Yorker.

Ben talks Tony Blair and foreign policy with the Guardian.

Read Ben’s “Diary” entry for the London Review of Books.

Check out reviews of City of Thorns from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, and NPR.

Read stories from Dadaab refugees

Keep up with Ben on Twitter.

Praise for City of Thorns:

"[Rawlence] has done a remarkable job, bringing home the reality behind those statistics by telling us what life is really like inside one of those camps... Rawlence's description of the camp economy is fascinating and shocking... A masterful account. Next time someone refers derisively to a 'bunch of migrants,' get them to read this book."
The Sunday Times (London)

"[A]remarkable book…. Like Dadaab itself, the story has no conclusion. Iti is a portrait, beautifully and moving painted. And it is more than that. At a time when newspapers are filled with daily images of refugees arriving in boats on Europe’s shores, when politicians and governments grapple with solutions to migration and erect ever larger walls and fences, it is 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. They remain, like the inhabitants of Dadaab, in an indefinite limbo of penury and fear, unwanted and largely forgotten.”
The New York Times Book Review

"[An] ambitious, morally urgent new book."
- The New York Times

“Magisterial….We see Dadaab through an accumulation of vivid impressions….[The book] moves like a thriller.”
Los Angeles Times

“The most absorbing book in recent memory about life in refugee camps… Mr. Rawlence’s major feat is stripping away the anonymity that so often is attached to the word “refugee” by delving deeply into the lives of nine people in the camp. By doing so, he transforms its denizens from faceless victims into three-dimensional human beings. Along the way, Dadaab emerges from the ever-present heat and dust to become much more than a refugee camp. It is a real, if very peculiar, city.”
― Howard French, The Wall Street Journal