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Government decision to shut down refugee camps ill advised

By Billow Kerrow | May 8th 2016

The government has yet again announced plans to shut down refugee camps in the country, citing ‘national security threats’. It ordered immediate closure of the Department of Refugee Affairs in the Ministry of Interior, and ‘closure of the two refugee camps within the shortest time possible’. Kenya hosts nearly 600,000 refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma camps, majority of whom are Somalis and South Sudanese. After the Westgate attack, the government announced it would close the camps. Last year, after the Garissa University massacre, it again announced it was shutting down Dadaab camp, citing it as a safe haven for terrorists.

Kenya is a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugees Convention since 1968, and domesticated it by enacting a law in 2006 that recognised the rights of refugees in the country. Shortly after the 2013 announcement, a tripartite commission of UNCHR, Somalia and Kenya Governments was established to pursue voluntary repatriation for Somali refugees in Dadaab. In 2015, UNCHR sent home some 6,000 refugees voluntarily and had planned to repatriate a further 135,000 by the end of 2017, subject to funding. In October last year, donors pledged USD 94 million in Brussels for the exercise that the government now says is ‘slow’. UNHCR reportedly spends about USD250 million annually on the refugees in Kenya but has faced reduced funding in recent years at a time when refugee inflows from South Sudan have been increasing.

Kenya has hosted the Somali refugees in Dadaab for the past 25 years. Many of the refugee children born here are now adults who do not know much about Somalia. There are reportedly over 75,000 children in nearly 40 schools in the sprawling Dadaab camp. The international community and UN agencies had raised concerns about potential devastating humanitarian and logistical crisis in shutting down the camp and sending these refugees home. The situation in Somali is not stable to allow for half a million refugees to cross the borders in a short span of time. The government has now asked the international community to ‘take collective responsibility on the humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action’.

Kenya’s concern over the refugee burden is legitimate, and shared by the UN and international community. However, it is highly unlikely that they will support forced repatriation. Our Interior Ministry had stated in 2015 that ‘the final planning and logistical support for nearly all terrorist attacks in Kenya have been executed under the cover of the refugee camps’. Dadaab may well be a den for terrorists but that statement may be somewhat exaggerated. The US State Department said last year that there was ‘no connection between Garissa attack specifically and Dadaab refugee camp’ and urged the government ‘to take a very specific, targeted, individual approach to identify those threats rather than blaming a community’. Kenya’s has porous borders with Somalia and many of those behind these attacks, including the Westgate and Garissa, reportedly entered or exited the country through Mandera and other areas.

Shortly after the Deputy President announced that ‘the way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa attack’ and ordered the closure of the camp within three months, President Kenyatta reversed the position in May 2015, after meeting the US Secretary of State and UNHCR boss, stating that Kenya “has been, and will continue, fulfilling its international obligations.” Certainly closing the camps and forcibly evicting the refugees will be in breach of the international and Kenyan laws. It will be interesting to see how the government will enforce the decision without provoking international condemnation.

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