Closing Dadaab refugee camp now is the right call

Refugees are among the most vulnerable people on the planet. They generally teeter between statelessness and total damnation. I know because I was a refugee in Tanzania from 1981 to 1984. My condition wasn’t the worst because I was an “elite refugee.” I was able to attend the University of Dar es Salaam and earn two law degrees. Tanzania saved me. But my refugee story isn’t textbook. All you have to do is open the paper and read about another capsized boat on the Mediterranean in which hundreds of doomed refugees have perished trying to reach Europe.

It happens daily — sometimes several times a day. This “flood” of refugees has exposed xenophobia in Europeans. They simply will not take in more dark people.

I call the exodus of refugees to Europe from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa a “flood” because a swollen river gone amok it isn’t. The European refugee “crisis” pales in comparison with what African states have dealt with for decades. Impoverished and struggling states like Kenya and Tanzania have been more generous to refugees than any developed rich European country. Kenya has hosted hundreds of thousands of Somalis and Sudanese for decades without as much as a faint complaint. But the Europeans — with all their wealth — can’t take a fraction of those numbers. Homogenous states like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark — touted as model democracies — have exposed their xenophobia. We’ve found out they actually hate diversity and difference.

This brings me to the determination of Kenya to close Dadaab and repatriate Somalis back to Somalia. But let’s be clear. Kenya’s obligations under international law forbid it to return refugees back to a country where they fear persecution. But the same international legal obligations realise that refugee status should be a temporary solution until it’s reasonably safe to return home.

Resettling refugees isn’t generally viewed as a permanent solution. In some cases, refugees become citizens or residents, but the law generally aims to give vulnerable exiles temporary shelter until they can return. The key is that repatriation — where it occurs — must not be carried out without a good assessment of the viability of a reasonably safe life upon return.

The United Nations and several Western powers cried foul when Kenya first announced that it was set to close Dadaab and repatriate Somalis. One got the impression that Kenya had acted unilaterally without adequate consultations with Somalia, the UN, and other powers that have been involved in the Somali imbroglio. Perhaps that’s true. I simply don’t know.

Whatever the truth, Kenya should’ve coordinated with these stakeholders, and certainly with Somalia. But the storm in the tea cup was resolved when Kenya held discussions with the UN, the US, and Somalia.

Somalia even welcomed the repatriation. The key here — and I cannot overemphasise the importance of this fact — is that returnees, especially women, children, and the infirm — must be treated humanely.

I know Kenya has been concerned that Dadaab may have morphed from a purely refugee humanitarian settlement into a hotbed of terror for the Al-Shabaab. That may also be true — I simply don’t know. But in my view the supposed perversion by some refugees Dadaab into a breeding ground for violent extremists shouldn’t be the reason for collective punishment, or a precipitous closure of the settlement.

As much I wouldn’t give the Al-Shabaab any quarter, I believe the law-abiding refugees of Dadaab shouldn’t be maltreated for a few rogue elements. And so my hope is that terror wasn’t the overriding factor for the decision to close Dadaab. It is only conditions in Somalia itself that can dictate whether refugees should be repatriated.

I strongly believe that every state and people must confront their own reality. This is what dawned on the Sudanese after decades of genocidal conflict. The North and the South decided to sign divorce papers. War had exhausted them. Somalia has been without a functioning state now for over three decades. It’s a miracle that pestilence, famine, and war has not wiped out the people. The Somali are a resilient, innovative, and entrepreneurial people. That explains their survival under the most adverse conditions. But it’s also a testament to Kenya’s generosity which has given many Somalis a home away from home. My point is that Somalis have the wherewithal to build a prosperous formidable state in Somalia.

The fact that Somali exiles have thrived so exceptionally in Kenya tells you they will rise again and rebuild Somalia. Going back is the first step in that process. Accepting they will hang together or assuredly hang separately is crucial. Every people must save themselves. After centuries of brutal war, Europeans formed the EU to minimise conflict. In Colombia, there’s an end in sight after years of conflict. Somalis must say nunca mas [never again].