What you need to know:
- Government seeking to repatriate refugees as humanitarian agencies protest move.
- In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR signed an agreement to have refugee’s repatriated voluntarily.
Kenyan authorities issued a 90-day notice to close the Dadaab refugee camp after getting frustrated at the pace of implementing a repatriation agreement signed in 2013.
A senior official in the Interior ministry told the Nation the government was concerned of “little movement” despite the deal having only a year to expire.
“The tripartite agreement is still on and we are careful about it, but what we have done is to expedite the process,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“What we are seeing now is very little movement on the repatriation programme yet the Agreement we have expires in 2016.”
On Sunday, the government announced Dadaab should be closed in three months in a decision that was on Tuesday criticised by the United Nations, arguing it violates international laws that Kenya has signed.
The UN cited the Refugee Convention which forbids host countries from forcibly returning people who have fled violence, natural disasters or persecution.
In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR signed an agreement to have refugee’s repatriated voluntarily.
The programme though has faced challenges with Somali politicians bickering on where to resettle those who return.
Although the government argues the closure notice was informed by terrorism, delays in implementing the agreement influenced authorities who charge that Somalia has delayed to play its part.
Under the agreement, the parties were to hold consultations, contribute the cash required and see to it that refugees are encouraged, but not forced, to return home.
UNHCR admits the success of this programme will depend on refugees being convinced that the areas of Somalia they are being taken to are safe.
But by this week, just 2,048 of the more than 350,000 at Dadaab have been repatriated under this programme which has less than 15 months to run.
'CENTRES OF TRAINING'
Dadaab refugee camp has been an "asylum city" for two decades, hosting thousands of Somalis who fled war, terror and famine since 1991.
Occupying about 50 square kilometres, its four sub-camps of Hagadera, Ifo I&II, Dagahaley and Kambios make it the largest refugee camp in the world by population.
It was initially designed to host just 160,000.
The Kenyan government says closing it down is part of the fight against terrorism. The announcement followed the deaths of 148 people in an Al-Shabaab attack at Garissa University College.
Leaders argued it was time to do away with the camp as a way of denying terrorists a place to hide.
“The camps have been, and the intelligence provides so, centres where the training, coordination, the assembly of terror networks is. We want them (refugees) to be relocated across the border,” Mr Aden Duale, the Leader of Majority in the National Assembly told reporters.
“They have been with us for the last 20 years. I think time has come when the national security of our people becomes paramount than (sic) the international obligations that we have.
“They come from Somalia and the people of Kenya need to be protected. They can go across the border. UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) can still facilitate.”
Kenya has suffered more than 130 attacks since the Kenya Defence Forces went to Somalia. But few of these have occurred inside the camp itself.
Between 2011 and 2015, there have been six terror incidents, mostly involving grenade attacks and improvised explosive devices. The most fatal came on January 17, 2012 when several police officers were killed after explosive went off inside Hagadera, the oldest of the four sub-camps.
Refugees themselves have refuted claims that they support terrorists and the UNHCR has several times denied being lethargic in allowing in sympathisers.
In an earlier interview with the Nation, the agency’s Dadaab office claimed it only works with refugees approved by the government through the Department of Refugee Affairs.
The Department vets refugees and grants them identification cards before UNHCR takes over at the camp. But this department was only created after 2006 yet the camp has existed since 1991.
Before the Refugee Act was passed, the Kenyan government used to delegate determination of refugee status to humanitarian agencies, often with little regard to background checks.
The Interior ministry official admitted previous arrangements may have provided leeway to admit criminals.
“We never used to be very involved because there was no specific agency tasked with that. Now we are changing that because some of these people we admitted may have had criminal connections,” he told the Nation.
The tradition is that the duration between applying and being declared a refugee can take up to six months, often taking into account rejections and appeals.
But an influx especially of Somali refugees at the height of violence or famine meant every arrival was given prima facie recognition to save time. This is where the problem of admitting criminals lies.
This is not the first time Kenya has demanded that camp be shut.
In January, the Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary told an Igad meeting in Mogadishu that repatriating the refugees will help them “regain their roots, rebuild their lives and reconstruct their country”.
In December 2012, the government had ordered all urban refugees to go back to the camp after which it would be closed down. This decision was quashed after human rights groups challenged the directive in the High Court.
The new directive has attracted criticism as well.
“The shock and anger provoked by this attack is entirely understandable, but the government should avoid knee-jerk responses.
“To counter the threat effectively, Kenyan security forces should ensure a lawful response in line with human rights,” Leslie Lefkow, the Deputy Africa Director for Human Rights told the Nation.
Writing in Foreign Affairs , Paul Hidalgo argued the camp may pose a “legitimate” security threat, but closing it down would provide Al-Shabaab with a new public to recruit members from.
Humanitarian agencies argue Somalia is not safe yet, but the opposition is also influenced by the fact that displaced people within their country mean the agencies will have different, often less, mandates as opposed to when those people those people are in a foreign country as refugees.
Some Facts about Somali refugees in Kenya:
- Kenya hosts up to 462,970 refugees. This means Kenya has the largest population of Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa.
- Most of these live at Dadaab camp which has existed since 1991.
- UNHCR says it requires about $245 million to attend to refugees in Kenya this year