What you need to know:
- Return of refugees portends both hope and anxiety as some start leaving ahead of May, 2017 deadline.
- The heaviest baggage the refugees will carry will not be the blankets and food rations given to them by the UN, but the burden of expectation, both for themselves and their children, about what the future will hold for them when they return home.
By May 2017, Kenya’s third-largest "city" by population will have ceased to exist.
The Dadaab refugee camp may have rickety stalls as opposed to sleek malls, the "houses" there are made of paper and sticks and there are no skyscrapers, but with a population of more than 348,130 people, it is among Kenya’s most densely populated areas. Of course, it is also the largest refugee camp in the world.
But between November and May, the bulk of the residents — Somali refugees who fled from either drought or war or a lethal mixture of both — will finally pack up their belongings, take down their makeshift houses and start the journey back to Somalia to rebuild the lives they left behind 25 years ago. They will leave behind a ghost town.
There will be a massive exodus the likes of which this country has not witnessed in recent history.
The great migration will turn the Dadaab-Liboi road — which is in all truth an untarmacked, glorified cattle track — into one of the busiest in Kenya.
Imagine the noise and the dust, the roaring of the engines, the murmured conversations among the people that will be so amplified by the sheer size of the crowd that they will sound like rolling thunder. Imagine the tears and heartache of friends wrenched apart as they inevitably head home to settle in different parts of Somalia. But also imagine the bubbling hope, the excitement, the happiness, the undulated pleasure of homecoming.
The heaviest baggage the refugees will carry will not be the blankets and food rations given to them by the UN, but the burden of expectation, both for themselves and their children, about what the future will hold for them when they return home.
Those who support the closure of the camp have advanced many arguments to support their case. The government has said that the camp is a fertile breeding ground for terrorists, the worst of whom are suspected to be responsible for the massacre at Garissa University College, where 147 people, mostly college students, were killed.
“Since its inception in the 1990s, the camp has been clouded in controversy, ranging from smuggling of goods and weapons from the neighbouring Somalia, to harbouring terrorists today,” wrote Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho in a press statement.
The government has a point. It is impossible for visitors to walk inside the camps freely and the UNHCR insists that one must have security escort of no less than four police officers, each wielding a G3 assault rifle, their bullets worn around each officer’s midsection like a belt.
The UN itself and other affiliate agencies with operations inside the camps must travel with police escort as well—one van at the front and another at the rear. As the aid workers discharge their duties inside the camps, the policemen stick closer than ticks, keeping an eye out for undesirable elements.
Should you think that all this protection is unnecessary, remember that last year, a teacher employed by Windle Trust, a charity that handles the education needs of the refugee children, was kidnapped by Al-Shabaab in broad daylight and taken across the border.
The incident happened when Ms Judy Mukomwe Mutua was being driven to the Hagadera Camp from Dadaab Town. It was unclear whether or not she had police escort at the time. Ms Mutua was rescued several days later, physically unharmed, but so traumatised that those who attended to her said she could not speak when asked about what had happened to her in captivity.
Kakuma Refugee Camp on the other hand is a much more relaxed affair, where anyone can walk in and out as they please, and stay as late as they want, with no fear that they might end up victims of a bloodthirsty terrorist. This, despite the fact that Kakuma is perilously close to South Sudan, which just a few months ago was in the midst of a bloody civil war.
What is it that makes Dadaab such a serious security risk?
Dadaab is only around 80 kilometres away from Somalia. The UNHCR itself admitted, in a 2010 report co-sponsored by the government, that there exist smuggling routes that have flooded the market in Hagadera with cheap goods from Somalia.
It does not take a great mental leap to imagine that those same routes could be used to smuggle in Al-Shabaab and their weapons.
Among the insiders, there are whispers of Al-Shabaab sleeper cells inside the camp, who lay dormant until such a time as they are called upon to host active fighters who have been deployed to wreak havoc within Kenya’s borders. This paints a picture of a refugee population that is mostly out of the control of both of the government and the aid agencies under UNHCR.
“You know people keep asking us why we are sending back all the refugees instead of just weeding out the troublesome ones. But it has come to our attention that the registered refugees hide the undocumented ones and they are the ones who cause us problems,” said Mr Mwenda Njoka, a spokesman at the Ministry of Interior.
But taking 400,000 people across the border is an expensive affair that Kenya cannot afford to shoulder on its own. Although reluctant to give a specific figure of how much money the repatriation might cost, Mr Njoka said that the entire operation could gobble upwards of Sh10 billion.
“The government is prepared to give Sh1 billion, as well as security and logistical support to the refugees. We hope that other governments and the aid community will step in to cover the rest,” he said.
The government remains optimistic that the repatriation will be peaceful and has not entertained any questions about whether force will be used to evict those who decide to stay on.
“We are working to ensure that the repatriation is carried out with dignity. We have talked to the Somali Government and it has set aside land in Jubaland to resettle the refugees. We are also encouraging donors and investors to invest in Somalia and build the required infrastructure to encourage the refugees to go back,” said Mr Njoka.
Despite pressure from Western governments, notably the United States, and humanitarian agencies, it seems that this time round, the government is determined to close the camp. It, however, does so with one concession.
“Should war break out in Somalia again necessitating asylum for its people, we will not close our borders. We are neighbours and we will always help each other,” said Mr Njoka.