Despite threats, the world’s largest refugee camp is here to stay

By Simon Allison 28 November 2013

Time’s up for the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in Kenya, apparently. In a fit of impatience, a Kenyan official unveiled plans to close the Dadaab complex of refugee camps – the largest in the world. This is easier said than done, however, especially as most of the refugees still don’t have a safe home to which they can return. Whether Kenya likes it or not, Dadaab is here to stay. By SIMON ALLISON.

“All the camps should be closed and the debate on whether or not it is appropriate has been passed by time.” With these words on Saturday last week, Kenya’s interior secretary Joseph Ole Lunku appeared the seal the fate of the more than half a million refugees from Somalia who have, over the past two decades, found refuge of sorts in Kenya.

Of these, most have been housed in the mammoth, sprawling complex of camps that make up Dadaab – the largest refugee camp in the world, with a population of 470,000-plus. Were it recognised as such, it would be Kenya’s third-largest city. Opened in 1991, in response to famine and instability in Somalia, it was intended as a temporary solution. Since then, however, conditions in Somalia have just got worse, and the camp complex has taken on an air of permanence. There are thriving shops and markets, real buildings in places, and young adults who have known no other home; all supported by a network of humanitarian agencies providing healthcare, education and other services.

Following the bloody terrorist attack on Westage Mall in September, maintaining this status quo became infinitely more difficult. Kenya was reeling, and Somalia’s Al Shabaab was to blame. Worse, the attack was planned with the help of some Somalis living in Kenya – a tiny minority of the Somali community, of course, but it was enough to turn public opinion (which had never been particularly welcoming in the first place) against the entire community.

Since the attack, police have cracked down on Somalis living in the Somali-dominated suburb of Eastleigh in Nairobi, regularly arresting dozens of people at a time. And sentiment has turned viciously against Dadaab, and Kenya’s perceived generosity towards the refugees there.

“That camp has become a nursery for terrorists. The UN must now understand the security of Kenyans comes first. Even if it is about human rights, it should not be at our expense,” said Asman Kamama, an MP, and also the head of the parliamentary committee on national security.

With Kenyan authorities failing to make much headway in their investigation of the perpetrators of the attack, it was only a matter of time before they took action against the easiest target in their sights: the refugees of Dadaab. With the interior secretary’s statements on Saturday, it seems that this time has come.

Or not. In a swift response, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it was not taking Lenku’s words at face value. “We do not believe that there is any order for the refugee camps to be closed,” said Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR spokesperson, speaking to VOA. “The Kenyan government and the Kenyan people have been very generous to the refugees over the years, and we certainly have every reason to expect that will continue to be the case.”

Anyway, even if it wanted to, the Kenyan government would struggle to implement any order to shut down Dadaab. It wouldn’t be like turning off a switch – it’s a complicated, fraught process involving some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Dadaab’s size, and its relative permanence, complicates this even further.

The main problem is this: if you’re not going to have them in a refugee camp, what do you do with hundreds of thousands of refugees? Send them home, of course; but is there a home to go to?

For some, this is an option. The political situation in Somalia has changed dramatically over the last 18 months; a Kenyan invasion, targeting Al Shabaab, drove the Islamist militant group from some of its main strongholds and allowed the federal government to take control of certain key areas (supported by an African Union peacekeeping force). Some towns, such as Kismayo and Baidoa, are considered safe for refugees to return to. And many have: since January, an estimated 30,000-40,000 people have returned voluntarily.

But for most, the various factors which drove them to flee their country in the first place – food shortages, violence, persecution, torture – still exist. Despite the recent setbacks, Al Shabaab still controls more territory than the federal government; and human rights abuses have been well-documented even in government-run areas. Somalia is still a failed state. To return, therefore, is to put themselves and their families back in harm’s way – an outcome that few are ready to volunteer for. And forcing them to go is not a real option. For one thing, it would violate all sorts of international treaties and human rights accords; for another, give the porous border, it would be impossible to prevent the refugees from coming straight back (and Kenya would prefer to have them grouped in one place where they can be controlled, rather than spread through the country).

Recognising this, the Kenyan government, to its credit, on 10 November, signed an accord with the government of Somalia and the United Nations pledging not to forcibly repatriate any refugees. The agreement stipulated that all returns should be voluntary and that the safety and the dignity of refugees should be of paramount importance; and, crucially that there be no deadline set for returns. It is on this agreement that UNHCR is basing its confidence that Dadaab will remain open.

In other words, until the security and governance situation in Somalia improves dramatically, Dadaab is here to stay – and, realistically, there’s not all that much the Kenyan government can do about it. DM

Photo: Women wait to collect their ration of food during a distribution exercise at a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) centre in Dagahale, one of the several refugee settlements in Dadaab, Garissa County, northeastern Kenya, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola



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