Kenya heeds calls to delay closing world’s largest refugee camp

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

The world’s largest refugee camp will remain open another six months. The Kenyan government announced that it is postponing its plan to close the Dadaab camp. It comes as little surprise given that there is no plan for how to resettle the more than 280,000 people who call the camp home.

“The government has accepted the request to extend the deadline for the completion of repatriation of Somali refugees, and this is essential to the closure of the Dadaab refugee complex, by six months,” Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya’s secretary for internal security and coordination of national government said at a news conference Wednesday, according to Reuters reports. “However, the ongoing voluntary repatriation will continue uninterrupted.”

The decision is a welcome reprieve, according to humanitarian organizations, but not a resolution. The goal to close the camp remains. Nearly three-quarters of the refugees in the camp do not want to return to Somalia, according to a survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most people there say they feel safer staying than returning home.

And there are concerns about the return process. It is not “voluntary, dignified or safe,” the Norwegian Refugee Council said in same report. The 2013 Tripartite Agreement protects refugees’ rights, and the group said that Kenya is not fulfilling its obligation. Even though Kenya agreed to support safe and voluntary repatriation in its effort to close the camp.

The initial closure deadline made it impossible for Kenya to keep its promise, critics said. Amnesty International officials said that government officials are coercing Somali refugees to return home. Amnesty interviewed 91 refugees and found that most were considering leaving because of threats by Kenyan government officials.

“They [the Kenyan authorities]are pushing us to Somalia. They came to our block areas with microphones and said: ‘You have to go register yourselves to go to Somalia. … If you don’t go register yourself now you will have to go on foot with your babies on your backs,’ said Hadi, a refugee who lived in Dadaab for the past 24 years, according to Amnesty.

Dadaab is the result of a two-decade-long conflict in Somalia. More than 1 million Somalis are displaced within Somalia, and many fled to neighboring Kenya for safety. The Kenyan government said the closure of the 25-year-old camp is overdue, often citing national security concerns, particularly after major terror attacks in Kenya by the Somali-based Islamist group al-Shabab in recent years.

Regardless, Human Rights Watch maintains that refugees who fear for their safety should be allowed to stay.

With the Kenyan government is taking a hard stance forcing refugees to make some hard choices, many refugees are taking the $400 resettlement fee offered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many fear that if they wait too long, the Kenyan government will deport them back to Somalia. As they see it, they have to go back no matter what.

“The Kenyan authorities are not giving Somali refugees a real choice between staying and leaving, and the U.N. refugee agency isn’t giving people accurate information about security conditions in Somalia,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “There is no way these returns can be considered voluntary.”

UNHCR is working alongside the Kenyan government to manage the camp and repatriate refugees. It supports the decision to delay closing the camp and asked for “flexibility on the timeframe” for the camp. Some 35,000 Somali refugees have voluntarily returned since 2014, according to the UNHCR. At that rate it would take a few years for all of the 283,558 refugees living in Dadaab to return.

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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.