In an official statement, the Kenyan Government has proposed closing all the refugee camps within its borders. The statement cites the ‘very heavy economic, security and environmental burden’ that accompanies hosting close to 600,000 refugees – 56 percent of whom are women, children and young people - as the main reason for seeking to close the camps. It also calls upon the international community to ‘collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action.’
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, is located in Kenya. Most of the 330,000 people that reside in Dadaab have escaped war in Somalia, while Kenya’s second-largest camp, Kakuma, is predominantly inhabited by those escaping South Sudan.
Ten million dollars has been set aside to close the camps and facilitate the repatriation of refugees to their country of origin or third party countries. Those living in Dadaab have been given until May 2017 to leave the country. There is speculation that this date has been chosen to coincide with the presidential elections set to take place in August 2017. Other cynical commentators believe Kenya is merely seeking more donor funds. It appears that hardening of international opinion surrounding refugees is the main cause for Kenya’s change of heart.
Kenya’s Principal Secretary for the Interior, Karanja Kibicho, stated: ‘we can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the International Community’s weakening obligations to the refugees ... Our action is taken at a time when a growing number of countries – rich and poor alike – globally are limiting refugee entry on the grounds of national security.’
It is not the first time that Kenya has proposed such an extreme policy. In April 2015, after the terror attack on a university in Garissa, Deputy President, William Ruto, informed the UNHCR that it had three months to relocate refugees out of Kenya. If it failed to comply, Kenya would expel them and, in so doing, break international law and abrogate its international responsibilities. After meeting with US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and UN officials, however, President Uhuru Kenyatta rescinded Ruto’s ultimatum.
Since 2011, Kenya has been militarily engaged in neighbouring Somalia, potentially adding to the instability that reigns there. Reports suggest that corrupt Kenyan army personnel commit severe human rights violations in Somalia and share profits from Al-Shabaab’s illicit sugar and charcoal trafficking. As Kenya is, at least partly, responsible for the chaos in Somalia it has an obligation to provide refuge to its displaced people.
Kenyan officials are correct in their security assessments. Al-Shabaab certainly poses a security threat to Kenya, but there is little evidence to suggest it has infiltrated refugee camps. The International Crisis Group has suggested that Al-Shabaab is infiltrating, radicalising and recruiting people in Kenya’s north-east, along the porous border with Somalia. Given the level of infiltration that has already occurred, it seems unlikely that closing the camps and repatriating refugees will resolve the issue. Gerry Simpson, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, has argued that refugees returned to Somalia could sneak back into Kenya at a later date, faced with the prospect of no food or shelter they are likely to be easier recruits for extremist groups in both countries.
There is little evidence that any Kenyan refugee camp has become a hotbed of radicalisation. Dadaab has come to resemble more of an unofficial metropolis than a hive of radical Islamism. It is home to an entrepreneurial class that has established markets selling, among other things, books, mobile phones and camel intestines. It has hospitals, schools, cinemas, soccer leagues and even an unofficial red-light district.
Refugee camps are increasingly being seen as an inefficient and poor solution to the world’s migration crisis. The UNHCR has begun to explore alternatives to the camp system, such as “refugee self-settlement”: under which refugees integrate into the host country’s society with no official assistance. Currently, all refugees in Kenya must live in camps without work rights. Perhaps Kenya could take inspiration from a Jordanian programme that aims to integrate 150,000 Syrian refugees into the economy through the creation of special economic zones.
At a time when the international refugee system is coming under increased strain, as a result of growing human rights violations, lower funding for aid agencies and the sheer weight of the unprecedented movement of people fleeing war and persecution, now is not the time for countries to ignore or avoid their international responsibilities.
Kenya acknowledges that harm will be done to the refugees currently residing within its borders, but clearly feels that it bears no responsibility for their welfare. At a time when the world is already dealing with an unprecedented number of migrants it is unlikely that the international community will shoulder more responsibilities. The East African region is likely to face increased migration in the near future. Somalia and South Sudan are already experiencing heightened food and water insecurity that could push more people into neighbouring countries. As a comparatively safe and secure country in an otherwise tumultuous region, Kenya must continue to pull its weight, as must the international community that funds and supports cash-strapped aid agencies.
Mervyn Piesse is the Global Food and Water Crises Research Manager at Future Directions International, a Perth-based research institute. He is also a recent graduate of the University of Western Australia’s International Relations Masters Programme.
Image credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr: Creative Commons)