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Will Kenya really close Dadaab?

Dadaab at sunset Moulid Hujale/IRIN

If the Kenyan government is bluffing over its announcement that it will close Dadaab refugee camp by November and repatriate 350,000 Somalis back across the border, then it’s a more elaborate ruse than usual.

Consider this: it has gone to the trouble of getting the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to declare that Dadaab constitutes “a serious threat to the security of Kenya”; last month it quietly revoked the prima facie refugee status for Somalis; then it took the big step of disbanding the Department of Refugee Affairs; and now it has set up a National Task Force on the Repatriation of Refugees to come up with the method, timeline and budget for closure by the end of this month.

But scepticism is well founded. This is not the first occasion Kenya has threatened to close Dadaab. It has long branded the sprawling system of camps a haven for the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab. The militants have launched two major attacks on Kenya – Westgate in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015 – killing at least 215 people, and striking major blows against the government’s prestige. But there is no public evidence that links the attackers to Dadaab.

Nevertheless, the government insists that its actions are based on security concerns – a framing that works for both a domestic and international audience. Imaana Koome of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya said the officials he would regularly talk to are now “tight lipped” and citing “national security”. ”Where is this coming from? Your guess is as good as mine.”

What’s on the table?

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is due in Nairobi at the end of the month and the hope is that a way out of the crisis can be found – the promise of international support has always worked in the past. But there is also a feeling that the ground has shifted. “It does seem potentially more serious this time,” Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader told IRIN.

Kenya seems out to make a point. The European Union has struck financial deals with key transit countries to control migrant flows ($3.3 billion to Turkey), but is getting away with it “on the cheap” in Kenya, according to Karanja Kibicho, principal secretary at the Kenyan interior ministry.

Europe’s handling of its refugee crisis, and the populist appeal of a certain US businessman-turned-politician who wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, puncture any notion of moral authority.

And how can Western governments take the high ground if Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee complex – is perennially on life support? There was a $25 million funding shortfall in 2012, and the World Food Programme has cut food rations twice since 2013. The Kenyan government’s refusal to consider an assimilation policy and drop its encampment approach means there has been no long-term strategy to improve livelihoods.

The weakness of border controls and episodic refugee registration also means a large and fluid population indistinguishable from the local community in Kenya’s northeast. This changing demography has a political dynamic, with growing friction between indigenous Kenyan Somalis and the new arrivals in the region.

“Kenya feels incredibly frustrated by its refugee burden,” noted Rashid Abdi, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

No appetite for return

So Kenya’s sole focus is on the refugees returning home. It was initially mollified by a voluntary repatriation agreement, signed along with Somalia and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. But progress has been slow. Only 14,000 refugees have returned since the start of the programme in December 2014 – and half of that total went home between January and April this year.

Another disappointment was the outcome of last year’s donor conference in Brussels, staged to raise money for voluntary repatriation and the related goal of rebuilding Somalia. The plan was costed at $500 million, but donors pledged (as opposed to forked over) only $105 million.

The irony of disbanding the Department of Refugee Affairs is that it has put the repatriation programme on pause. A flight to Mogadishu has already been cancelled as there was no one to issue the refugees’ “movement passes”. Now the functions of DRA officers have been handed over to local country officials, although it is unclear whether this is legal.

But even if it was working at full capacity, the repatriation programme cannot deliver on the scale Kenya wants. “Refugees require three things in place before they return,” said Heather Amstutz, regional director of the Danish Refugee Council. “The first is their own safety, then livelihood opportunities, and finally essential services – the basics, healthcare and education. And that’s not present in many areas of Somalia.”

The repatriation programme was initially limited to three pilot areas in the south, but has since been extended to nine “where there are pockets of stability”, said Amstutz. “These are areas where the local authorities are open to return and are willing to facilitate.”

The Kenyan government says its five-year military intervention in southern Somalia has liberated “large swathes” of territory. It wants to see an accelerated repatriation, with UNHCR declaring more safe zones – and there’s a possibility the UN will comply. But the reality is that al-Shabab still holds sway in much of the countryside. It recruits aggressively, and people that return from Kenya are treated with suspicion.

“People sign up to towns that are declared safe, but they may not be from there and they push on into al-Shabab territory,” said Bader. “Clearly individuals coming back through voluntary returns are being harassed, and maybe worse.”

The tragedy is that some who have made the gamble to restart their lives in Somalia are giving up and returning to Dadaab – the conditions were harder than they had anticipated. Somali journalist Moulid Hujale said he knows of many such cases.

There is also a question mark over the whole notion of voluntariness in the context of a less than sympathetic Kenyan government with a tendency to launch impulsive crackdowns against the Somali community. It springs from a “strong anti-Somali sentiment in this country that has existed for a long time,” said Abdi from the International Crisis Group.

Those opting to return are most commonly the newer arrivals in Dadaab, those who fled the 2011 famine. They are not as well established as the camp veterans, and short food rations can mean real hardship. In those circumstances repatriation is not a positive choice.

Born and bred

Dadaab is 25 years old. There is a whole generation of refugees who have known nothing else. They are acutely aware of the insecurity across the border in Somalia and the lack of opportunities there. So, however unwelcoming, Kenya is some kind of home.

Leaving Dadaab
Moulid Hujale/IRIN

“Kenya wants to be rid of its problem, but it can’t take short cuts. Improving security in Somalia and engagement with [military] partners like Ethiopia [in Somalia] is a better strategy than these recurrent threats against the refugees,” said Abdi.

The alternative approach would be for Kenya to emulate neighbouring Uganda, which allows its refugees to work and contribute to the local economy. While there is a similar pilot project at Kenya’s other big refugee camp of Kakuma, close to the South Sudanese border, that is ruled out for Dadaab, despite the already significant contribution the camp makes to the economy of the Garissa region.

Nowhere to go

Kenya’s grand strategy has always been to create a buffer zone in southern Somalia, near the Kenyan border, to prevent al-Shabab infiltration and serve as the new home for the refugees bussed out of Dadaab.

Kibicho, the Kenyan interior ministry official, claims 10,000 hectares has been procured outside the Somali town of Baidoa for exactly that purpose. But according to Abdi, a more likely location is Ras Kamboni – a town much closer to the Kenyan border. There, plans are more advanced, and there is some Gulf state financing but “it remains a plan, no ground has been broken”, Abdi said.

The task force will be reporting at the end of the month on the logistics of transporting 350,000 unwilling people over dirt roads, through insecure territory, to a camp that will require the support of the international humanitarian community.

“We will humanely repatriate them,” Kibicho told a local TV station. “They will not be harassed. Their rights will not be violated, but the endgame is there will be no camp in Dadaab.”

Despite Kibicho’s insistence, no one expects Dadaab to close by the government’s November deadline. Even if widespread international and humanitarian opposition could be overcome, and a camp could be built in Somalia that was deemed safe, the logistics of running 5,000 coaches of 70 people across the border in that timeframe are mindnumbing.

Might they start a process? Possibly. But it is doubtful that the Kenyan government is willing to risk the security fallout of forcing a largescale and unpopular exodus. A lot will probably depend on any offer that Grandi might bring.

Bader of Human Rights Watch said the timing of Kenya’s bombshell, just before the World Humanitarian Summit, “does raise questions over whether Kenya is using this as a way to pressure the European Union and other states to give more money.”

But Koome of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya is taking nothing for granted. While preparing legal action against the disbandment of the DRA, he is also considering how to better manage any eventual transition away from Dadaab, just in case the threats one day become a reality.


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