By Lara Kajs
Dadaab is home to more than 350,000 refugees. After twenty-five years Kenya has vowed to close the camp and send the refugees back to Somalia or to other countries, which leaves the international community with one more mass refugee movement to embrace.
The world’s largest refugee camp opened in 1991 and although it was intended to be a temporary shelter, for the last quarter of a century it has housed hundreds of thousands who fled to Kenya escaping rape, arbitrary detention, beatings, extortion, and the fear of being killed. For more than two and half decades, Dadaab has been home to Somalis, Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ugandans, Congolese and Sudanese.
A Preventive Measure
The Kenyan government noted the primary reason for the closure is the need to protect the country against terror attacks. Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya’s Interior Minister said that the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab was using the Dadaab refugee camp to smuggle weapons.
During a news conference Nkaissery said, “For reasons of pressing national security that speak to the safety of Kenyans in a context of terrorist and criminal activities, the government of the Republic of Kenya has commenced the exercise of closing Dadaab refugee complex.”
William Ruto, Kenya’s Deputy President said that if the UNHCR did not close the camp within three months, “we shall relocate them ourselves.”
One of the most obvious questions is how does Kenya expect to move 350,000 people in a matter of a few months? And who is going to pay for it? What’s more, does Kenya plan to line border patrol agents to police it and prevent anyone from returning?
Of great concern is the push by the government to force the refugees out of the country. The forced mass movement of 350,000 people will take time. If the process does not produce the desired results, it is not inconceivable that the government could resort to human rights violations to achieve expulsion.
But the closure of the camp is only going to increase the instability to the region and make it difficult to protect the tens of thousands of women, children and unaccompanied minors in the camp. And what of the thousands who were born in Dadaab and have never known any other home? Where do they go? There are no policies in place to grant citizenship and allow those refugees to become contributing members of Kenyan society.
The decision by the Kenyan government to close the refugee camp is unrealistic, immoral and it is against international law to force refugees back to a country where violent conflict is still occurring. As a signatory to the both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Kenya has an obligation to protect and not to expel refugees and Article 33 specifically forbids returning refugees to conflict areas where their life would be in danger.
A secondary reason for the closure is international neglect. The country has grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of support it has received as a result of the crisis created by the Syrian Civil War and Islamic State violence. As attention and financial support have been directed toward the Syrian refugee crisis, Kenya has been left with significantly less resources. If more financial support were made available, it is possible that Kenya would reconsider closing Dadaab.
But, this is not the first time Kenya has suggested closing Dadaab. While the government has threatened to close the refugee camps within its borders in the past, this time seems different. The termination of the Department of Refugee Affairs, combined with a closure date, indicates its intention is to follow through this time. As some believe that the threat is a ploy to use the refugees to bargain for more financial support for its military forces, the U.N. has urged the Kenyan government to reconsider its decision to close Dadaab.
At the present, operations in the camp are at a standstill. The registration of refugees, issuance of passes for travel outside of the camp, use of hospitals for medical care, as well as other services have all been stopped. And while Kenya is insisting that they mean business, many in international aid and the 350,000 living in Dadaab are hoping the camp will remain open.
Featured Image: Refugees stand outside their tent in the Dadaab refugee camp. Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters