Kenyan Government Signals Shutdown of Refugee Camps

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Responding to “immense security challenges,” the Kenyan government announced in an official statement on Friday that it will no longer be able to host the over half a million people living in the country’s two refugee camps and dispersed throughout its cities.

“The Government of Kenya has been forced by circumstances to reconsider the whole issue of hosting refugees and the process of repatriation… hosting of refugees has come to an end,” Kenya’s National Police Service issued in a Twitter post on Friday.

As of March 2015, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Kenya’s two official camps–Dadaab in the east and Kakuma in the northwest–housed 584, 989 refugees. Fleeing civil war, political persecution, and drought in places like Somalia (where 72 percent of refugees hail from), South Sudan (16 percent) and Ethiopia (5 percent), some of the refugees have created a home for themselves in Kenya’s camps, especially the oldest and largest one in Dadaab, near the country’s arid eastern border with Somalia. Over a quarter million people have established lives in Dadaab, most of whom were displaced by war in Somalia when they were children and have since made a home in the “tent city.”

The Kenyan government has been pushing to close the camps for a few years. Last April, the government voiced intentions of shutting down the Dadaab camp, citing security concerns. And though the UNHCR, which runs the camp, agreed to assist Somalian refugees (which comprise the vast majority of Dadaab’s displaced peoples) who volunteered to return home, the organization opposed forced repatriation.

The sprawl of the displaced: One of Dadaab's five camps. Over a quarter of a million refugees, namely Somalians, call this home. [Image courtesy of United Nations Photo]

The sprawl of the displaced: One of Dadaab’s five camps. Over a quarter of a million refugees, namely Somalians, call this home. [Image courtesy of United Nations Photo]

Last spring’s announcement followed an attack at Garissa University, where a group of gunmen loyal to al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda linked, Somali-based terrorist group, shot and killed 147 students. Kenya has been mired in a conflict with the Islamic terrorist group for nearly a decade. Al-Shabaab has been committing acts of terror on Kenyan soil for years, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and it is the primary security threat the government referred to in its decision to close the refugee camps.

Following the Garissa attacks, the government alleged al-Shabaab had infiltrated Dadaab and used it to plot and launch attacks. In March, Kenyan newspaper The Star reported an al-Shabaab gun smuggler was caught at Dadaab, with not much more concrete evidence to support the government’s claims.

But the latest announcement seemingly came out of nowhere, following no mass casualty event or obvious security concern.

“I think it’s legitimate to believe that Kenya is issuing the threat as a means to leverage more resources from international donors,” said Mark Yarnell, Senior Advocate at Refugees International in an interview with Law Street Media.

Refugees from the nations that surround it seek a life free from war, drought and political persecution in Kenya. [Image courtesy of greenravine via Flickr]

Refugees from the nations that surround it seek a life free from war, drought and political persecution in Kenya. [Image courtesy of greenravine via Flickr]

Pointing out that Kenya’s security concerns certainly are real and legitimate, Yarnell, who has spent time in the field in East and Central Africa, predicted the latest threat by the Kenyan government is meant to extract more resources from the international community to deal with its conflict with al-Shabaab, more as a leverage tool than a step toward abolishing camps and rounding up refugees “at the barrel of a gun.”

“[The camps] are quite entrenched in the country, with their own market systems and infrastructure,” he said, likening the demolition of the two camps to essentially wiping out two cities. “You have people who were born in the camp and kids of people who were born in the camp and all they know is Dadaab or Kakuma.”

He pointed to a recent communiqué from the African Union on the Dadaab camp as the validation the Kenyan government needs to show the rest of the world it is in solidarity with a larger institution to do something in regards to the camps and maintaining Kenya’s security. In the communiqué, the AU Peace and Security Council acknowledged the “legitimate security concerns” facing Kenya, the threat of Dadaab to the security of Kenya, and the need to accelerate the process of repatriating Somali refugees who volunteer to do so.

It also called on international partners, “particularly the United Nations” to “extend necessary financial, logistical and technical support” to the Somalian government, and “to increase funding to Somalia, Kenya, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies.”

If the Kenyan government follows through with its latest proclamation, hundreds of thousands of refugees will suffer, wandering, with nowhere to settle but the homes they were forced to abandon. Some left those homes decades ago.

That’s not to say Kenya’s refugee camps are perfect, permanent homes. Flooding, disease and malnutrition have wrecked havoc on Dadaab in the past, and according to UNHCR, there were eleven epidemics reported in 2012 alone.

Despite the imperfect conditions of Dadaab and Kakuma, UNHCR expressed “profound concern” over the latest announcement from the Kenyan government in an official statement released on Monday:

In today’s global context of some 60 million people forcibly displaced, it is more important than ever that international asylum obligations prevail and are properly supported. In light of this, and because of the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have, UNHCR is calling on the Government of Kenya to reconsider its decision and to avoid taking any action that might be at odds with its international obligations towards people needing sanctuary from danger and persecution. 

Under the leadership of President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya would be breaking international law if it went forward with these plans, for which there are various legal statutes assuring the protection of refugees by the host nation. The primary right afforded to refugees worldwide is a promise of non-refoulement, or return to a place where their life and freedoms would be threatened.

“It would be such an egregious violation of basic refugee rights and their own constitution,” Yarnell said.

Alec Siegel
Alec Siegel is a staff writer at Law Street Media. When he’s not working at Law Street he’s either cooking a mediocre tofu dish or enjoying a run in the woods. His passions include: gooey chocolate chips, black coffee, mountains, the Animal Kingdom in general, and John Lennon. Baklava is his achilles heel. Contact Alec at



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