Kakuma, Dadaab refugee camps to be closed by June next year

UNHCR officials led by Filippo Grandi when they met Interior CS Fred Matiang’I in Nairobi on April 29, 2021. [Photo, Couretsy]

Kenya will continue with its plan to close the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps by June 30 next year.

Interior CS Fred Matiang’I today met Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to fast track the process that will start on May 5 next year.

Kakuma camp houses more than 200,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.

Matiang’I said refugees from the East Africa Community residing in the camps will have an option of repatriation or free work permits to carve out a living anywhere in the country, thus “contributing to our nation's social-economic growth”.

Amnesty International Kenya has welcomed the revised timeframe of June 30.

Executive director Irungu Houghton said neither permanent refugee camps, rushed camp closures or violating international principles of nonrefoulment are solutions.

“We trust the government and UN High Commissioner for Refugees shall work towards identifying more opportunities for resettlement or voluntarily repatriation of willing refugees.”

AIK last month noted that the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma camps without an orderly approach that respects refugee rights invited a humanitarian disaster.

“The principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture or treatment,” Houghton said in a statement.

The government in March gave the UNHCR 14 days to have a road map on the definite closure of Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.

Matiang’i at the time issued the directive to the UNHCR representative in Kenya Fathiaa Abdalla, saying there is no room for further negotiations.

Dadaab Refugee camp, located in the semi-arid town of Garissa County, is one of the largest and complex camps in the world.

Tents at the UNHCR's Ifo Extension camp outside Dadaab.

The UN has said the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma camps will adversely affect the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

UNHCR warned that the move will have severe results especially in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The agency acknowledged the generosity of the Kenyan government for hosting the refugees for decades.

In 2006, Kenya made similar threats, with claims that terror attacks were planned in the camps. The threats culminated in the signing of a tripartite agreement between Kenya, the federal government of Somalia, and UNHCR.

Some of the refugees have expressed shock after the announcement to close Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.

Ifo Refugee Camp vice-chairperson Abdullahi Osman said, “We are shocked by this because what we fled in Somalia is still there. We have no homes nor do we have anything to go back to in our country."

He said refugees still need a lot of help and protection and asked the government to rethink the decision.

Dadaab Refugee camp in the northern part of Kenya.

How did we get here?

The first camp in Dadaab was established in 1991.

The population exploded in 2010 due to the food crisis as a result of the harsh environmental conditions in Somalia, where the majority of the population originated from.

According to the United Nations, as of March 31, 2019, the camp hosted 210,556 refugees, of which 202,381 were from Somalia, with 56 per cent of the population being children.

Over the years, there has been subsequent overcrowding leading to the spillover of refugees into the land beyond the camp’s official boundaries.

In 2019, the Kenyan government said it would shut down the camp even as refugees continued to shun the voluntary repatriation programme started in 2014. This is as suspicions that the camps were harbouring Al Shabaab terrorists continued to grow.

Kakuma Refugee Camp is located in Turkana County and is among the largest refugee camps in the world.

The camp was established in 1992 and is jointly managed by the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR.

It has transitioned from a place of temporary asylum to an ‘urban centre’, complete with its own market. Some refugees run businesses to become self-reliant.

The camp is home to more than 194,000 refugees and asylum seekers housing at least 100,000 South Sudanese and 55,000 Somali refugees, the rest being from other countries.

Most of the refugees were driven from their homelands by civil war, according to the United Nations.