Kenya’s threat to close its refugee camps could be real this time

In between homes.
In between homes.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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Kenya is threatening to close the world’s largest refugee camp and send some 600,000 people back to the wars, drought, or famine from which they fled. Citing the ”very heavy economic, security and environmental burdens” it has borne on behalf of the region and international community, Kenya said its time “hosting refugees has come to an end” in a statement late last week.

It’s a threat the Kenyan government makes every so often, helping it attract more donor funding for its extensive refugee operations. Last year, the government threatened to close the camps at least twice and in 2013, a similar call was made. Donor funding has dwindled in the past few years and Kenya may be seeking more help now that attention is focused on the refugee crisis in Europe.

This time, Kenya’s threat may be serious. The government has disbanded its refugee department and promised to close all refugee camps. ”I don’t think they are bluffing this time. I think they could do it,” says Otsieno Namwaya, Kenya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We urge Kenya to continue to provide protection for refugees that it has welcomed for decades,” says Conor Philips, Kenya country director for the International Rescue Committee. The United Nations has also urged the country to reconsider.

Kenya is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, close to the border with Somalia, where an estimated 340,000 people live in what resembles a city, with schools and stores and other semi-permanent infrastructure. Another major camp, Kukuma, near South Sudan, hosts refugees fleeing civil war there.

The Dadaab (Dagahaley) refugee camp.
The Dadaab (Dagahaley) refugee camp.
Image: DigitalGlobe

Kenya claims that these camps, started in the 1990s, have become a haven for al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that has launched attacks against Kenyan citizens for the past five years. Members of the government claimed that the 2013 West Gate mall attack as well as an attack last year on Garissa University were both planned at Somali-dominated refugee camps. This month, police said they thwarted a biological attack involving anthrax.

“As a country with limited resources, facing an existential terrorist threat, we can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the international community’s weakening obligations to the refugees,”Karanja Kibicho, Kenya’s minister for national security wrote in an editorial yesterday (May 9).

The camps have also come under criticism as smuggling grounds for charcoal and sugar, generating income for al-Shabaab militants. Communities near the camps complain that refugees receive more resources and better treatment than they do.

As a result, Kenya has limited the number of new refugees entering the country. The country only opened registration for new refugees last year. (Refugees must register with the government to have protected status.) Before that, Kenya had only allowed new registrants once since 2012, and even then the window of opportunity lasted for little more than 30 days. Somali refugees living in cities have been harassed, with the aim of pushing them into camps or back to Somalia, according to Namwaya of Human Rights Watch.

Now, Kenya says it plans to send all of its refugees home, which would affect thousands of South Sudanese, Ethiopians, Ugandans, and others. “It’s not going to affect just the Somalis,” Namwaya says.