Key stakeholders meeting on 14 June to discuss the future of Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya acknowledge that there are tough choices ahead, but no agreed way forward.
The panel discussion, entitled "Dadaab 20 years on: what next?", was organized by NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Nairobi, and included government officials, UN agencies, NGOs and representatives from Dadaab's refugee community.
Dadaab, originally built to house 90,000 refugees, currently hosts close to 500,000; management of the camp was handed over to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the early 1990s. Stakeholders say with more refugees arriving daily, it is becoming increasingly difficult to run: It now has a bigger population than Nakuru, Kenya's fourth largest city, and is the biggest refugee camp in the world.
The panel discussed possible alternatives to Dadaab, including persuading the international community to allow more refugees to resettle abroad, relocating refugees to safer areas in smaller camps, and creating ways for the refugees to become more self-reliant.
"A refugee camp is not a long-term solution," Elena Velilla, MSF Kenya country representative, said in a statement. "Thousands of vulnerable people have already suffered too much. In a safe haven, health and dignity should be guaranteed. As long as no action is taken, the Somali refugees will continue to pay the price…
"The solution is of course political - it's a very political question", she told IRIN after the event. "We are humanitarians - we can only question what we are doing."
Experts like Torben Bruhn, regional health coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, spoke of "donor fatigue" - amidst deteriorating security, overstretched services and what Kellie Leeson, country director of NGO International Rescue Committee, describes as "a constant struggle... to make sure people remain healthy".
Kenyan politicians have persistently made calls for Dadaab's largely Somali population to be resettled inside Somalia. "Kenya can no longer continue carrying the burden", said President Kibaki at this year's London conference on Somalia in February.
Badu Katelo, Kenya's commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of State for Immigration and Registration of Persons, asked the international community to give greater assistance to the Kenyan government in hosting the refugees. He said Dadaab would be restructured into smaller units with a ring road around it, adding that security was a key concern, particularly with elections looming.
While Katelo said the best solution was for the refugees to return home, he likened sending Somalis back after 20 years while their country remained insecure to "eating a whole cow but being unable to eat the tail". "The return we are talking about is not a forced return," he said.
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"The refugees who are the most educated will be the first ones to return home," said the IRC's Leeson, who has witnessed repatriation in Sudan. "We need to make sure refugees get educated so they can contribute now and in the future", she said, advocating that the government take advantage of what refugees could contribute to Kenya.
Bare Osman Abdi, the Dagahaley Youth vice-chair, described the camp as an "open prison" for many, some of whom have not left since arriving 20 years ago. "We believe the Somalis' case has been forgotten," he said, appealing to the government to review the employment act that prevents Somali refugees from working in Kenya.
Non-state actors at the meeting, including UNHCR and MSF, publicly called on Kenya to consider local integration for refugees - an integration that would involve granting some refugees Kenyan citizenship.
Integration is one of the central points of disagreement between state and non-state actors in the Dadaab debate. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Farah Maalim, an ethnic Somali, said integrating 400,000 Somalis into Kenya would not be a shrewd move for any politician hoping for election success, but was adamant that, given the opportunity, the Somali population living in Kenya would be self-sufficient.
Maalim described a situation in Zambia where refugees were given the tools to produce their own food and helped sustain the national granary. "Yes, we could have done it differently", he said.
Abel Jeru Mbillinyi, UNHCR deputy country representative in Kenya, said he believed there were Somali refugees who had the right to claim Kenyan citizenship. "How many are Kenyan? And if they are Kenyan, what way do we have of helping them?" he asked. "In the long term, the government can take part in absorbing citizens to Kenya," he said, describing the alternative option of voluntary repatriation as "becoming a bit illusive".