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Debating Dadaab

Debating Dadaab
  • PublishedJune 27, 2015

Kenya faces serious security threats from Somali militants and their Kenyan sympathisers. The country hosts a large number of Somali refugees, and the government wants to reduce this number by closing the massive Dadaab refugee camp. To do so would not only be a breach of international law but a fundamental misreading of the drivers of displacement and terrorism, as Nanjala Nyabola explains. 

On 11 April 2015, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto announced his intention to have Dadaab refugee camp – the largest refugee camp in Africa and until the Syrian war, the largest in the world – closed in three months. Closing the camp would mean removing the approximately 350,000 refugees who currently call the camp home, the vast majority of them Somali refugees fleeing war.

Ruto’s remarks were a response to the devastating al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University College that left at least 147 students dead and many more unaccounted for. Government representatives have asserted that the attackers were housed at the camp for several days before launching the attack against the university, and it was thus imperative to close the camps as a security measure. However, representatives of refugee rights organisations have accused the government of scapegoating refugees for its own failures, arguing that it would be impossible to close the camp without placing the lives of the refugees at risk.

More generally, Ruto’s remarks were made in the shadow of a tripartite agreement with UNHCR and the government of Somalia to work towards creating suitable conditions for the ‘voluntary return’ of the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees currently in Kenya. This agreement urges the governments implicated to “preserve protection, the asylum space and respect the principle of ‘voluntary return’ ” for refugees in camps in Kenya. The agreement does not set a timeline for the refugee returns, but Ruto may have thought he was merely accelerating a process that was already in motion.

That Dadaab poses a challenge to Kenya’s public policy is indisputable. What is debatable is the exact nature of the challenge and the options available to the government in the process of addressing it. Legally, the government is boxed in because it is a signatory to all the major international instruments of refugee protection, including the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees which prohibits refoulement – the return of refugees to a place where they may be subject to the persecution that caused them to flee in the first place. This convention and others have been given domestic form in the 2006 Refugee Act, which not only prohibits refoulement, but further recognises prima facie refugee status for individuals fleeing situations of generalised violence such as that which exists in Somalia.

Dadaab presents Kenya with a dilemma. On the one hand, the camp serves an important protection function for victims of one of the longest running active conflicts on the continent. Since 1989, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have fled the violence there and been granted basic asylum if not full refugee status in Kenya. The distinction is important – refugees receive many entitlements from the host state, such as free education, that asylum seekers are unable to claim.

Furthermore, given the bundle of rights involved, refugee status determination can be a complex process that takes years to finalise. As such, over time, Dadaab has come to function as a holding space where asylum seekers from Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries can have their status determined in preparation for receiving full refugee status in Kenya or third countries. Passing through Dadaab is one of the few legal paths to refugee status left in the Horn. Recent deaths in the Mediterranean remind us that without such options, desperate and frightened people resort to extreme measures in search of protection. Many of the 900 or so asylum seekers who have died in the Mediterranean since January came from the Horn of Africa.

On the other hand, 25 years after it opened, Dadaab is clearly no longer temporary and is yet another testament to the inability of international organisations to address protracted conflict situations. Three generations of refugees live in the camp, including many young people who have never called anywhere else home. The camp is large – if it were recognised as a city it would be the third largest in Kenya. Nor does the conflict in Somalia show any signs of abating, at least to an extent to which returning refugees can return without the risk of refoulement. Although there are more pockets of stability in the country, and images of a resurgent Mogadishu are common on the Internet, the murder of several high-profile government officials by al-Shabaab extremists this year emphasises that the country’s conflict is far from over and has only taken on a new form.

Furthermore, Dadaab also hosts many cyclically displaced persons seeking respite from the famines and droughts in Somalia, events that are as much political as they are environmental. Conflict only aggravates perennial food security issues and many of Somalia’s pastoralists routinely seek protection from the harsh periods in the camps that make up Dadaab. Amongst them are many Kenyans of Somali origin, likewise suffering environmental catastrophes aggravated by poor government planning and resource allocation to the region. This mixed-migration requires targeted and sustained interventions, difficult to initiate where the government is unable to disambiguate between groups. All of these factors and more urge a reevaluation of the current approach to Dadaab.

Unfortunately, instead of considering such a systematic evaluation, Ruto’s position on Dadaab is based on a major fallacy that increasingly shapes refugee policy: the presumption that refugees are security risks. In Kenya the link between refugees and security is tenuous at best, and completely facile at worst – a desperate attempt to shift focus away from the many security failures that actually contributed to the Garissa attack. Kituo Cha Sheria, a legal aid centre in Nairobi, affirmed that in the entire history of Dadaab not a single camp resident has been successfully prosecuted for a felony. More importantly, all of the four Garissa attackers so far identified (and amidst unconfirmed reports that there were more) were Kenyan, including the son of a prominent local leader in Garissa. Investigations revealed that this attacker’s family had repeatedly alerted government officials several months prior of his joining al-Shabaab, and his disappearance around the time of the attack, all of which went unheeded.

At the same time, reports in local media from as early as 2014 show that many security analysts were concerned about Kenya’s training of Kenyan and Somali militia to combat al-Shabaab. Unlike Ethiopia, which kept similarly trained troops under Ethiopian military command, Kenya allowed these units to operate unsupervised. These are the units that are believed to have contributed to increased insecurity in the North Eastern regions and in Somalia. Such groups – hitherto aligned to various clans – are rife in Somalia. The risk of returning Somali refugees to an unstable Somalia is thus a threat to Kenya as well, as the risk of radicalisation of dislocated and disoriented youth who have known no other home but Dadaab is high.

“These are Kenyan guns that we are using. Your tax money paid for these weapons.” In a Kenyan documentary recapping the failures that led up to the Garissa Attack, a survivor repeated these chilling words, shouted by one of the attackers during the siege. Coupled with the many lapses that prolonged the duration of the attack, it’s clear that the Kenyan government’s story is implausible. Indeed, the facts of the Garissa attack are a stark indictment of the government, affirming that placing the blame for the attack on refugees is duplicitous, shortsighted and possibly, dangerous.

Written By
Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based in Antananarivo, Madagascar. She writes regularly for Al Jazeera, The Guardian and other publications, and provides analysis on political issues in Africa for various radio and television outlets in Kenya, the US and the UK. She holds a BA in African Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham, an MSc in Forced Migration and an MSc in African Studies, both from the University of Oxford, and a JD from Harvard Law School. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.

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