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What does closing the Dadaab refugee camp mean?

Kenya’s decision to close down the Dadaab refugee camp and repatriate about 340,000 refugees back to Somalia has finally been reached albeit without the blessings of the international community and aid organizations. This somehow resonates with the situation in Europe, where the EU and Turkey recently agreed to send mainly Syrian refugees back to Turkey from the Greek Islands. The reason given by Kenya are concerns over its security, illicit trade and environmental degradation. This new development means that the issue at hand is no longer whether or not to close down the camp but how to repatriate the refugees back to Somalia and signifies the onset of more onerous and complex challenges for Kenya.

The Dadaab camp in Garissa County is comprised of four camps namely Hagadera, Ifo I and II, Dagahaley and Kambios. It is the largest refugee camp in the world and was established in 1991[1] together with Kakuma camp that is located in Turkana County. Dadaab mainly cartered for Somali refugees.[2] Ideas to close it down started back in 2013 with increased terror attacks in Kenya. The government argued that it had become a hosting ground for terrorists and contraband goods and weapons from Somalia. In fact, it is claimed that the attacks on the Westgate mall in 2013 and the Garissa University, both of which claimed huge casualties were planned in the camp albeit without disclosed evidence. In one of the sub-camps in Dadaab, the Hagdera which is the oldest, an explosion once occurred in 2012 that led to the death of several police officers. The Kenyan government has also alleged that the weapons were found amongst refugees in the camp.[3] The question therefore is whether fears of insecurity and smuggling of goods as per the claims by the government is the only motivation for the Dadaab closure or otherwise as was the case with the EU-Turkey deterrence deal.[4]

The European Union migration deal with Turkey, commonly referred to as the EU-Turkey deterrence deal was struck in March 2016, following the influx of about a million refugees into the European Union with the latter tasked to prevent illegal migration through its territory in exchange for financial and political rewards.[5] Even though it is still a matter under negotiation, the deal is already in operation. In relation to that, in November 2015 a summit was held in Malta for European and African leaders and an agreement was made to build partnership between Europe and Africa to address root causes, protection of African migrants and asylum seekers and improve cooperation on return, readmission and reintegration among others. Both of these initiatives were largely informed and driven by the European migration crisis whereby an influx of refugees and migrants was experienced in Europe in 2015 across the Meditteranean sea and refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East respectively. Whether by coincidence or otherwise, Kenya’s decision and timing for closure of the Dadaab was insync with the global rhythm.

Back in Kenya, in 2013, events culminated that led to the signing of a tripartite agreement on voluntary repatriation (that expires in September 2016) between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) outlining its procedures and legality.[6] This resulted in the decision for its closure that has fuelled huge critcism especially from international humanitarian and human rights organizations such as UNHCR, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, among others for being in violation of the principle of non-refoulement/or the 1951 convention on the status of refugees and the country’s Refugee Act (2006).[7] In spite of widespread criticism, nothing could change the government’s stance even the intervention of the UN Secretary General Ban KI Moon.[8]

Ultimately, it is now official that the Dadaab camp will be closed down by November 2016,[9] an exercise that is expected to cost about Kshs 50 billion. So far, about 5000 refugees had been moved by August 2015 under a pilot program. Perhaps contrary to expectation, pledges worth only USD 105 million was made at an international donors pledging conference held in Brussels in October 2015, something that could delay the repatriation exercise. The conference was hosted by the European Commission and UNHCR and brought in representatives from more than 40 countries and organizations.

Implications of closure of Dadaab Camp

Moving from the status quo and challenges associated with it, the situation presents the important question on what the whole exercise really means to the various stakeholders. The developments seem like a relief for those who pushed for the repatriation, but on the contrary, it signifies a temporary solution hence more responsibility and problems for the various actors. What it means is that work has just begun in managing the situation and ensuring that the refugees are accorded the special care that they need and that they return to a peaceful environment where their rights are respected and security guaranteed. How this can be possible remains a dilemma because Somalia is still considered unsafe[10] – the reason why the repatriation exercise is a violation of refugee law to which Kenya is a signatory. Regardless, Kenya, Somalia, and the international community will have to find ways of working towards ensuring the repatriated refugees are significant to the Somalia nation building process including preparation for the upcoming elections yet for this to happen a peaceful environment is vital.

Conclusion and recommendations

What the situation means for Kenya, is that it should heighten its efforts as a good neighbour and allocate Somalia the full support that it needs, not only in refugee resettlement but the larger process of Somalia’s reconstruction. Given past trends, if will not come as a surprise if the decision for repatriation of the refugees will be used by Al-Shabaab as a recruitment factor, and so Kenya bears the responsibility to prove the positive side of its actions and that despite all odds, such an action can still bear fruit. The continued spill over effects of the war in Somalia to Kenya, means that it is time that the country’s commitment to Somalia’s stability is enhanced that can be done by for example; supporting Somalia with expertise, training for the army, police, judges, etc in a a similar manner that it is doing for South Sudan. It should also encourage investment in Somalia by Somalis as opposed to Nairobi. Equally important is that given that one of the reasons for the decision to close down the camp was to eliminate the illicit flow of contraband goods from Somalia, means that the world will be watching to see how much the action impacts positively on curbing the inflow of such goods as well as improve on Kenya’s security. To prove its words, Kenya and Somalia must therefore increase intelligence sharing and work closely towards this goal.

Hawa Noor M is an independent research consultant. She may be reached at












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