Kenya to close the world’s largest refugee camp

Refugee shelters in the Dadaab camp, Kenya. Photo by Pete Lewis, DFID UK.

The world’s largest refugee camp may have only a year left before it is closed by the Kenyan Government. In a threat that has been decried by human rights groups as dangerous and illegal, this plan could result in hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees being forced back to the war-torn country they fled.

Kenya claims that it has no alternative but to close Dadaab camp due to the recent terror attacks committed by the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab. This group was responsible for the massacre of almost 150 students last summer at the Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi. According to Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Nkaissery, al-Shabaab is using Dadaab camp as a smuggling route for weapons that are terrorising the Kenyan people.

However, the United Nations has raised concerns that the closure of Dadaab could have a devastating effect for the 330,000 refugees who live there. They have also pointed out that it may not be possible to force such large numbers of people into a country where a war is raging. According to Human Rights Watch there is significant concern that, with the Kenyan Government desperate to dismantle the Dadaab camp, they may resort to abusive tactics in order to fulfil this goal. Such concern is raised due to the Kenyan Government’s recent record. Gerry Simons, a senior researcher and advocate for the refugee program at Human Rights Watch claims that three years ago rape, extortion, beatings, and arbitrary detention were used among other strategies to “encourage” Somalis to relocate from cities into camps. According to Simons, “that strategy was pretty successful-thousands of Somalis left because of the overall level of abuse against the community”.

There are also significant questions around whether closing Dadaab would actually impact the level of security in Kenya. Given that boarder control is limited it is possible that those pushed back to Somalia would simply return to Kenya at a later date. Moreover, without basic food or shelter such refugees may become easier recruits for militant groups in both countries. As Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK has pointed out, “refugees in the country have fled the very violence the authorities say they are trying to combat…Forcing them back to violence and persecution is as immoral as it is unlawful, and risks increasing instability and displacement in the region.”

Whereas previously the Kenyan government has always backed down on its threats to dismantle its camps, this time it seems more serious. With a timeline, budget, and a disbanded Department of Refugee Affairs, individuals and NGOs are right to be concerned. According to a joint statement from aid groups and NGOs, “Shutting down the refugee camps will mean increased protection risks for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers- [the] majority of who are women, children and unaccompanied minors.” Aid groups have claimed that the Kenyan Government may be willing to reconsider its plans if it receives more international support. However, with Europe and the West focused on the refugee crisis and the war in Syria it doesn’t look like such support is on its way. William Swing, the Director General of the International Organisation for Migration pointed out that countries such as Kenya have been expected to carry the burden of far more refugees for a much longer period of time than Europe is today. In a recent interview he implored governments to ensure that such countries are not “left in the lurch”. The extent to which such governments heed this call is likely to have a huge impact not only on the stability of this region but also on the stability of the world as a whole.

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