May 8, 2016
Kenya Closing All Its Refugee Camps, Displacing More Than 600,000

The Kenyan government said on Friday that it is working to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, forcibly displacing more than 600,000 refugees.

Kenya cited the heavy economic and environmental costs of continuing to host refugees as the rationale, as well as security concerns over Islamist terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. Built 20 years ago, Dadaab in northeast Kenya is the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting more than 330,000 refugees, mainly from neighboring Somalia. Kakuma, in the northwest of the country, hosts about 150,000 refugees from Somalia, as well as Sudan and South Sudan.

"Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, has decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end," Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Interior Karanja Kibicho said in a statement quoted by CNN, citing the "very heavy" burdens of hosting refugees within the country's borders.

Although it is not yet known how or when the closure will take place, Kibicho also said the closure would take place "within the shortest possible time." He also said the Department of Refugees Affairs, which works with humanitarian organizations to aid Kenya's refugees, has already been dissolved as a first step toward closing the camps.

Kibicho's statement notably did not address where the refugees would be expected to go.

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have condemned the plan, saying that the Kenyan government's statement is "contrary to principles it has pledged to respect," citing a lack of evidence connecting Somalian refugees with the terrorist group and accusing Kenyan police of abuses.
"Despite the Kenyan government's frequent statements that Somali refugees in Kenya are responsible for Kenya's insecurity, officials have not provided credible evidence linking Somali refugees to any terrorist attacks in Kenya. Human Rights Watch is not aware of convictions of Somali refugees in connection with any attack in Kenya. At the same time, Kenyan police have targeted Somali refugees and ethnic Somali Kenyans in discriminatory and abusive law enforcement operations, such as mass arrests and round-ups during Usalama Watch in 2014."
Kenya announced the closure of Dadaab and other refugee camps last year but backed down under intense international pressure from the United Nations. This time, Kenya has already put the closure plan in motion and asked for the support of the international community in speeding up the process. According to The Star, Amnesty International warns that Kenya's decision could put tens of thousands of innocent lives at risk.

"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 regional director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes. "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."

Many of the refugees in Dadaab camp fled to Kenya from war-torn Somalia, whose government is fighting to defeat an insurgency by the al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab terrorist organization. Human rights groups fear that Kenya's policy will lead to forced return of refugees to conflict zones in Somalia where their lives may still be in danger. Likewise in Kakuma camp, the majority of them are from South Sudan, fleeing to escape civil war in their country.

Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch, says Kenya's decision is not only immoral but may even violate international law.

"The threat Al-Shabaab poses in Somalia and Kenya is real, but that doesn't negate Kenya's obligation to abide by international refugee law. Rather than abandon people it still recognizes as refugees, the Kenyan government should appropriately prosecute those people who have committed crimes and maintain efforts to protect refugees according to international standards."
Last year, Kenya sent a request to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate the refugees in Dadaab camp following a terrorist attack by Al-Shabaab at Kenya's Garissa University, which caused the deaths of 148 people. The government has since complained the process has been slow.

[Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images]