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Somali refugee problem should not be our permanent burden

COMMENTARY
By David Oginde | June 14th 2015

The debate over whether or not to repatriate the Somali refugees from the Dadaab camp is worrying to say the least. While the government has come out strongly to have the refugees sent back to Somalia, some are vehemently opposed to any such suggestion. The arguments from both sides are as strong as they are confusing.

The government seems legitimately concerned that, not only has the refugee burden become too heavy, but the Dadaab camp has become a security threat. Recent intelligence seems to indicate that the camp may have become a haven for planning and executing terrorist attacks on Kenyans. It is this that informs the strong position of the government that a solution should be found that moves the refugees from Kenyan soil in the shortest time possible.

The counter opinion, mainly held by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organisations, is that the refugees cannot be moved other than voluntarily. The argument is that Kenya is under international obligation to host the refugees until they voluntarily offer to return home. The incontrovertible reality is that no such prospect is anywhere in the horizon. The management of Somali refugee situation is thus proving to be a real challenge.

Refugees are often ordinary people who have fled their nations in pursuit of safety and freedom. In most cases, many have fled with only what they can carry on their backs. As such they are deserving of every act of kindness and compassion as they await more stable conditions back at home. Hence the UN convention legitimately requires that the host government and community to which people run should provide them with every possible support. Such support is expected to include: the preservation of and access to asylum and international protection, access to adequate land, access to basic services such as healthcare, quality education, markets, and livelihood opportunities.

The challenge, however, is the lack of clarity on what a host nation or community should do when the stay of the refugees has gone beyond sustainable levels, or when all or part of the refugee community has become a nuisance or threat to citizens. Herein lies our challenge with the Somali refugee situation.

According to UNHCR statistics, it is estimated that by the end of 2015, the refugees and asylum-seekers from Somalia will be nearly 470,000 — representing about 70 per cent of the over 650,000 people of concern in Kenya. There is yet another unknown number that is dispersed across the nation, especially in the cities and other border towns. A majority of these Somalis has been in the country for up to 25 years. The social and economic burden that the country has carried over these years is perhaps unquantifiable. And whereas such load could be overlooked, it is some new factors that are beginning to complicate the situation.

Apart from the terrorist threats posed by some criminals hiding among the legitimate Somali refugees, there seems to be a political angle that could be raring its head. There is a belief in some quarters that, for political reasons, some Kenya-Somali communities may have enlisted foreigners to augment their numbers during the last census. There are also fears that the refugees may be deliberately resisting departure in the hope that they will eventually be integrated into the Kenyan population.

Indeed, at a recent consultation with stakeholders, the Kenya acting commissioner of refugee aff?airs, Mr Haron Komen, was categorical that Kenya was not considering integrating Somali refugees as a way of resolving the Dadaab closure debate.

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Even more serious is the perception that the community could be working towards creating a caliphate in the North Eastern region of the nation. This perception has been born out of the apparent focused attack on non-locals in the region.

What these realities point to is that the refugee situation needs a sober consideration by all involved. Unfortunately, the attitude of some key players seems to be more of posturing than collaborative. For example, Mr Wella Kouyou, the UNHCR deputy representative in Kenya, is reported to have said, “We would like to remind governments that they have legal obligations to protect refugees.” Though true, such demands cannot however be legitimately made against a nation that has carried the heaviest weight, of the largest refugee population in the world, for the longest period of time.

Yet, as if in concert, the World Food Programme announced it would reduce food rations to refugees in Kenya from this week! Which begs the question: Where is Kenya expected to find food to feed her own children and those of her neighbours? The airlines usually instruct that in case of dropped oxygen supply, “put on your oxygen mask first before attempting to help others.” It seems to me that our national oxygen supply has drastically dropped.

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