A Kenyan court has blocked the government’s decision to close the world’s largest refugee camp

Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya.
Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
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The world’s largest refugee camp is not somewhere in Europe, or on the Turkish-Syrian border, or in Iraq; it is the Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya, home to more than 250,000 people, mainly Somalis. A high court in Kenya has blocked a government directive to close it, saying that it would be “an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.”

Kenya announced last spring its intention to shut the camp, which has grown into a sprawling complex since it was built in 1991 at the outbreak of civil war in neighboring Somalia. Kenyan politicians, who have made similar threats in the past, argue that the country has unfairly borne a burden that should be shared by the international community.

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

Officials also claim that the camp harbors al-Shabaab militants and sympathizers. (There is little evidence.) The Somali-based Islamist group working to topple the Somali government has launched several attacks on Kenya over the last five years in retaliation for Kenya’s support of African Union troops in Somalia.

The deadline for the closure, originally the end of November last year, has been delayed and authorities have issued vague statements walking back the directive. During a visit by US secretary of state John Kerry, Kenya’s interior minister promised that the camp would only close once stability returns to Somalia.

Since the announcement, refugees have been forced into returning to Somalia despite continued violence and persecution, according to Human Rights Watch. (Kenyan government officials dismiss these claims.) Somalia’s inclusion in US president Donald Trump’s recent travel ban has also left hundreds of Somali refugees, on the verge of being resettled in the US, with nowhere to go but back to Dadaab.

The decision also restores the Department of Refugee Affairs, dismantled last year. “This is a very positive step for the lives of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been stuck in limbo since the official announcement was made in May last year,” Médecins Sans Frontières in Kenya said in a statement. The government can still appeal.