Kenya’s abrupt closure of refugee camps could leave hundreds of thousands at risk

An aerial view of Dadaab refugee camp, in Kenya. (Photo Credit: Andy Hall/Oxfam)

Kenya announced that closing the world’s largest refugee camp is the best way to deal with the nearly half a million refugees living in the country. Many of the people who have lived in the country for more than a decade – including tens of thousands of children who have only known the camp as home – will suddenly be homeless. Human rights groups and the U.N. immediately criticized the plan and urged the Kenyan government to reverse its decision.

“This reckless decision by the Kenyan government is an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, in a statement. “It could lead to the involuntary return of thousands of refugees to Somalia and other countries of origin, where their lives may still be in danger. This would be in violation of Kenya’s obligations under international law.”

Given the number of refugees and the age of the camps, the closures could set a precedent for how other countries deal with growing and persistent refugee populations. The fact that Amnesty was joined by Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Refugee agency (UNHCR) in condemning the decision illustrates the gravity of the decision for both the refugees in Kenya and elsewhere. Using the word “reckless” is a deliberate choice by Amnesty to raise the alarm about the negative consequences.

“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,” according to a statement from UNHCR on Monday.

“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.”

Homes in the Dadaab refugee camp. (Photo Credit: U. Świerczyńska/flickr)

Homes in the Dadaab refugee camp. (Photo Credit: U. Świerczyńska/flickr)

For years, the Kenyan government has threatened to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Dadaab alone is home to more than 300,000 refugees and is considered the largest refugee camp in the world. The government said that security challenges posed by Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab are behind the decision. An attack in April 2015 by the group on Garissa University in the region near the Somali border left at least 147 people dead. It came roughly 18 months after al-Shabab gunmen attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people.

Fear of further attacks and anti-Somali sentiments raised the political discussions about the refugees living in the country. Calls for the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma have been building in recent years leading to the government’s announcement last week. A statement from the secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade cited “national security interests” as the chief reason for closing the camps. It recognized the hardship caused by the decision on refugees and called on the international community to “take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action.”

Human Rights Watch rebutted the idea that refugees posed a security risk for Kenyan citizens. They say there is no credible evidence linking the camps to any of the terror attacks. However, as was seen in Paris following the Islamic State attack in November, evidence of what happened does not necessarily take precedence over fear of outsiders when it comes to nationalist politics.

The refugees face dangerous consequences if the camps close. Kenya is essentially trying to send people back to the violence and conflict they were trying to escape. UNHCR specifically said that Somali refugees should not return to the unsafe southern and central parts of the country. The situation is also not much better for refugees originally from South Sudan. Refugees in need of support are now likely to return to insecurity for the sake of political point scoring in the name of national security.

“The Kenyan government should appropriately prosecute those people who have committed crimes and maintain efforts to protect refugees according to international standards,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Kenya should not turn its back on people needing protection and on fundamental principles that it has pledged to respect.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.