How Kenya sealed the repatriation of refugees

What you need to know:

  • Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery expressed this frustration on Wednesday, a week when he argued there had been “several consultations” with stakeholders, but which had not led to anything tangible.
  • In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Kenya not to close the Dadaab Refugee camp because the “fundamental problems” in Somalia are still unresolved.
  • When a pledging conference was finally organised in Belgium, UNCHR told the audience that limited social amenities, security and source of livelihood means that just under half of the population at Dadaab would have been relocated by December 2017.

Amnesty International called it reckless, the United Nations termed it unfortunate while the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Doctors without Borders (MSF) said the move would be a violation of international law.

Yet this is the third time such organisations are coming out to condemn the imminent closure of the Dadaab refugee complex.

The decision by the Kenyan government to close down the Dadaab refugee camp has been pegged on insecurity. But it is also about the frustration felt in implementing the tripartite agreement signed three years ago to have refugees voluntarily go back home.

That agreement expires in September this year yet just 5,200 of refugees from a possible 400,000 living in Dadaab have been repatriated through the programme.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery expressed this frustration on Wednesday, a week when he argued there had been “several consultations” with stakeholders, but which had not led to anything tangible.

“There has been very slow progress on the implementation of the agreement. As part of concluding this arrangement, Kenya is committed to close Dadaab Refugee Complex,” he told reporters at Harambee House in Nairobi.

“This decision has been made by the government reflecting the fact that the camps have become hosting grounds for Al-Shabaab as well as centres of smuggling and contraband trade besides being enablers of illicit weapons proliferation,” he added.

Occupying about 50km2 in Garissa County, Dadaab refugee complex has four sub-camps of Hagadera, Ifo I&II, Dagahaley and Kambios making it the largest refugee camp in the world by population.

If it were to be a city or town, it would be Kenya’s fourth largest, almost the same population as Nakuru.

OVERCROWDED

But these camps are overcrowded. They were initially designed to host just 160,000, yet this population has rose four times between 2010 and 2013 mostly due to famine and insecurity in Somalia.

The government says 200,000 refugees have since gone back to Somalia on their own means after famine eased.

But the politics surrounding their management is old. In 2007, Kenya closed the border with Somalia, a decision condemned by the international community. It later reopened after famine forced masses to flee Somalia in 2010.

So how did the current Ping-Pong start? In April last year, Deputy President William Ruto, told the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to close it down in 90 days or else Kenya forcibly relocates it.

That erupted a fierce debate.

“Closure of the camps and forced return of the refugees to Somalia would violate the right to seek and enjoy asylum and the principle of non-refoulement as set out in international laws to which Kenya is party,” Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR Kenya Representative told the Nation at the time.

“Under international law, it is prescribed that return must be voluntary. Forced returns would amount to refoulement, which UNHCR cannot associate itself with,” Mr Mazou added.

MAKE EVERY EFFORT

But that announcement also forced Somalia, Kenya and UNHCR; the signatories of the tripartite agreement, to start talking again.

“Twenty years is such a long time for anybody to be in a refugee camp. It was not a choice,” said Somali Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer after he met with Kenyan counterpart Amina Mohamed in Nairobi.

“We will make every effort for these refugees, Somalis, to come back home to rebuild their lives, to participate in the reconstruction of Somalia.”

After this meeting that was also attended by UNHCR officials, the government backed down on the 90-day threat, but insisted the camps must be dissolved sooner. But this was partly informed by the cost of repatriating refugees. If Kenya were to go it alone, it would fork out Sh5 billion.

“We will request UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) to convene a pledging conference at which time we will be requesting our partners, donors, for resources that we will use to expedite the repatriation of refugees from the country,” she told reporters in Nairobi,” Ms Mohamed told reporters at the time.

She added: “We have agreed that we will do it as quickly as possible. I don’t want to put a timeframe but I tell you that we probably could do it either before the three months are over or maybe go over that period a little, but it will depend on the resources that are available so that we can just do it in the best possible manner.”

From then on, a series of diplomatic back-channels softened Kenya’s stance, agreeing in public that it would work with partners to implement the agreement.

US CONCERN

In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Kenya not to close the Dadaab Refugee camp because the “fundamental problems” in Somalia are still unresolved.

On his tour of Nairobi, he announced an additional Sh423 million ($45 million) to cater for refugees in Kenya, but told the government to help stabilise Somalia first before refugees can return.

“I know some people here feel it is a burden...it is completely understandable; but on the other hand it shows that Kenya has accepted people who are running away from terror in their countries,” he said then.

More donors pledged support. The German government gave Sh500 million for the repatriation programme. The humanitarian aid arm of the European Commission (ECHO) gave €10 million in aid for the refugees in Kenya.

Mr Kerry’s visit was followed by that of UNHCR boss António Guterres who later told reporters there would be no fixed timeframe on repatriation. Effectively, both sides were finding it difficult to stick with the agreement.

“There was not, in this discussion, a fixed date but a strong sense of urgency,” Mr Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minister, told reporters at the Intercontinental Hotel.

“We have no timelines, but we came to a common understanding on what needs to be done, which is to simultaneously strengthen security in Dadaab and at the same time, we will enhance our programme of voluntary repatriation of refugees to Somalia in areas that are considered safe.”

SECURITY FIRST

President Uhuru Kenyatta had told the UNHCR boss Kenya will continue to honour its obligation of caring for refugees, but security will come first.

“We want the world to understand that the security of our people and their property cannot be relegated to the bottom of our priority list,” he told Mr Guterres, according to a statement from State House.

When a pledging conference was finally organised in Belgium, UNCHR told the audience that limited social amenities, security and source of livelihood means that just under half of the population at Dadaab would have been relocated by December 2017.

“We are now getting ready to move into the enhanced phase of this operation, which will aim to assist 135,000 refugees to return to Somalia between January 2016 and December 2017,” António Guterres said referring to a pilot voluntary repatriation programme in which 5, 200 refugees were returned to Somalia by August last year.

After the conference, the programme had only received Sh10.5 billion worth of pledges against the target of Sh50 billion. UNHCR argued this funding gaps as well as insecurity could delay repatriation.

Will Kenya effect this closure this time?

TERROR ATTACKS

Kenya has experienced at least 130 terror attacks since the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) went to Somalia in October 2011, killing more than 470 people.

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 inside the camp.

The most fatal of it came on January 17, 2012 when several police officers were killed after explosives went off inside Hagadera, the oldest and largest of the four sub-camps, currently hosting about 103,000.

Kenya says it harbours terror merchants and Police have occasionally seized weapons among refugees mainly in Hagadera. These weapons are said to be smuggled in by some of those who claim to flee for their safety.

Human rights campaigners though charge that there is no tangible evidence to link refugees to terrorism, although some admit bad elements may infiltrate.

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