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Reconsider plans to close refugee camps

By Elias Mokua | March 30th 2021
Part of the IFO II refugee camp in Dadaab.

The Double Effect Theory advanced by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his work 'Summa Theologica' offers an interesting moral framework to weigh in on the government’s decision to close Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest theologians of all time. He has influenced Christian and religious thinking over centuries on issues of this kind.

The Double Effect Theory is used in moral cases in which a decision will result in both good and bad effects. In the case of the government’s announcement, it will close the refugee camps, the result will surely be good and bad. Good, if we give the benefit of doubt to the government, and in the government’s word that it is handling a security threat.

By emptying the camps, the government argues, it is fulfilling its primary obligation to protect its citizens from any form of aggression, particularly of a terrorist nature. No doubt, the occasional terror attacks, especially in Northern and Coastal regions of Kenya, maybe bothering the security agencies. The public assumption here is that the attacks have linkages in refugee camps.

The bad effect of closing the refugee camps is that Kenya is a signatory to many binding international treaties. Under international refugee law, for instance, Kenya is committed to supporting any refugee into or through her territory as long as there is evidence the person is running away because of founded fear of persecution. Normally, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated with vetting persons seeking asylum to ascertain the veracity of their claims to “founded fear of persecution”.

By asking the refugees to pack and go, the government is caught between a hard place and a rock. Now, for most ordinary citizens, it is practically impossible to know what level of security threat the government is operating on. So we can only mull ideas through best practices in merging the interests and rights of both the host country and the refugees.

Governments elsewhere have forcibly repatriated refugees when they think the risk of keeping them is too high. But by all means, that is not just an automatic ticket. The government would have to show that it has exhausted all other alternatives including tightening security checks so that the thousands of innocent refugees are not victims of a few crime perpetrators.

The tragedy is to provide fodder to ill-intentioned persons with reason to gang up against the government. The terror groups will reason to their advantage that their people are being mistreated. Horrendous situation to be in because Kenyans will also yell at government if they feel their lives are at risk.

The first tenet of the Double Effect Theory states that an act or decision of the magnitude of sending away thousands of refugees must be morally good or at least indifferent. So is the government concerning itself with the fact that closing the camps will actually hurt many people whose fate has brought them to the camp? 

Ordinarily, closing refugee camps is a slow structured tripartite process involving the country of origin, the host country and UNHCR and its partner agencies. Perhaps this has happened but the moral obligation to be humane to refugees is a sign of our true African Ubuntu culture where we treat visitors with a heart of generosity even as we usher them out. Failure to put the moral aspect into consideration in this operation will hurt our international image.

International partners

The third and fourth tenets of the Double Effect Theory are also important. The good effect that the government wants to realise, which is a secure environment for its citizens, is a noble cause, but must be a direct result of a good action. The burden of taking care of refugees should be spread across the international partners.

This includes extended support to our security agents who have the heavy burden of protecting us from aggression. The bottom line is either way, keeping the refugees – in the assumption the risk is really high – or sending them away, is a catch 22 situation for government.

But the good effect of keeping them with heightened security is probably a lesser evil. We risk glorifying terrorists by appearing to purge. The people in the camps need our love and protection. Our country has done this for many years.

Overall, closing the refugee camps that we have supported for years may be a short-term solution to a deeper crisis in the Horn of Africa. This is the hour to call on the international community to support Kenya in protecting refugee rights in this host country.

Dr Mokua is Executive Director of Loyola Centre for Media and Communication

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