In May 2016, the government of Kenya announced its plans to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, by the end of this month, November. The government asserted that one of their primary reasons was security. The camp is home to almost 300,000 refugees from neighbouring countries with the vast majority – over 260,000 or 95% – from Somalia, home of the armed group known as Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has carried out a number of attacks in Kenya in recent years and Kenya has alleged that some of these have been planned from inside Dadaab, thus its security justification for the closure.
In November 2013, the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate Somalis to their country of origin over a three-year period. To date, UNHCR continues to facilitate “voluntary” returns, which in practice means providing those that opt to go back with a small assistance package around USD$200 per family member for when they reach Somalia. The notion of “voluntary”, however, is deeply problematic.
A report released by Amnesty International on 15 November asserts that the Kenyan government is deliberately coercing Somali refugees to return to situations where they face the risk of death or injury due to the ongoing armed conflict situation in Somalia. Refugees told Amnesty International of threats they received from Kenyan authorities that they would be forced to leave if they did not go now and would be left without the assistance package from UNHCR.
At the moment, there is a lot of confusion about what will happen at the end of this month to those refugees who refuse to return. UNHCR proposed a plan to reduce the population of Dadaab to 150,000 by the end of this year, but Kenya is adamant that the camp will close on 30 November.
Kenya’s policies with regard to Somali refugees are tied in with its response to Al Shabaab, which has been responsible for a number of large-scale attacks in the country following Kenya’s decision to intervene militarily in Somalia in late 2011. The link between the armed group’s activities and the refugee camp were brought to the fore following the September 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall that killed 67 people. Shortly after, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government said: “some of these refugees have abused our hospitality and kindness to plan and launch terror attacks from the safety of refugee camps. This cannot and shall not be allowed to continue anymore.” In November, the tripartite agreement was announced.
Then on 2 April 2015, 147 people were killed at Garissa University by Al Shabaab militants, making it one of the deadliest attacks to take place in Kenya. Just a few weeks later, Kenya’s Deputy President called on the UN to close Dadaab leaving hundreds of thousands of Somalis feeling uncertain about their future. The plans did not proceed until a formal announcement was made this year with no change in its stance.
Back in 2014, Kenya passed a controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 (“the Security Act”) which included a provision of limiting the number of asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya to 150,000 persons. This specific section was struck down by Kenya’s High Court (together with seven other clauses) on 23 February 2015 however other sections restricting refugees remain in place.
Where Kenya is at risk of breaching its obligations towards refugees
There is no doubt that Kenya has hosted more than its fair share of refugees, including those from Somalia – some who have been in the country for over two decades. However, the large number of refugees does not absolve the government of its international obligations – including to respect the most fundamental right of refugees, that of non-refoulement.
The right of non-refoulement protects refugees from being forcibly returned to a place where their life or liberty would be in jeopardy. Refoulement can also occur where refugees are left with no other choice but to return due to harsh conditions and pressure in the host country. Somalia is an insecure environment, and many may face such risks. Already there are more than 1.1 million people internally displaced in the country and there is a real risk that the potential influx of returned refugees will not only increase the strain on resources but further exacerbate the instability in Somalia, resulting in the possibility of a new wave of refugees. What seems to be forgotten in all these discussions is that those in Dadaab “never chose to be living in an isolated refugee camp in Kenya.” What Kenya fails to realise is that the vast majority of Somali refugees share the same primary concern with the Kenya government – security – and have the same enemy – Al Shabaab. Despite the Kenya government’s claims, there has been no clear evidence that the Westgate and Garissa attacks were plotted from within Dadaab.
I recently visited Dadaab and spoke with a number of refugees who expressed the desire to one day return home but firmly held the belief that the time was not now. I spoke to one man who said “Somalia is my country and I love it more than any place in the world, but it’s in the hands of the wrong people at present. If I could go back I would. If I thought it was the right time I would. But it’s not. Every once in a while I have nightmares of all the things we’ve seen in Somalia.” Another refugee who had already attempted to repatriate but been forced to flee again to Dadaab due to the insecurity added “I regretted going to Somalia. There were people dying all the time. It is not safe. [The African Union Mission in Somalia] whose job it is to fight Al Shabaab cannot prevent these attacks.”
Following a series of kidnappings in Kenya by Al Shabaab, the government, concerned about the potential security implications of having an unstable neighbour, decided unilaterally to take action in Somalia in late 2011. Subsequently, they also decided to contribute troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2012. AMISOM has been operating in Somalia since 2007 and although senior AMISOM officials claim they have liberated 80% of Somalia from Al Shabaab, the group is still able to carry out devastating attacks across the country and retains freedom of movement in some areas. So far this year the group is said to have carried out over a dozen attacks, “eight of which have targeted Mogadishu, a city from which the group had previously withdrawn in 2011.” Understandably, civilians do not feel safe and anticipate regular attacks, especially now in the run up to elections.
In this highly charged and highly complex environment, Kenya needs to acknowledge that it is putting hundreds of thousands of people at significant risk by returning them to Somalia, not to mention violating its international obligations. Many of the conditions that forced people to flee still exist in Somalia and there is no guarantee they will be safe. The Kenyan government, which has hosted this group for so long, must not now intimidate or coerce people into returning and must continue to provide safe haven until alternative protection mechanisms can be found. To do otherwise would be not only to violate its international obligations and make an already vulnerable population more vulnerable, but it also risks increasing instability in Somalia and undermining Kenya’s national security interests.
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