By Tim S. Braimah, Refugee/Human Rights Researcher and AmeriCorps Program Specialist
Kenya has demonstrated its obligations towards refugees both legally, and practically. Legally, Kenya is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention) and its addendum, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Kenya’s signing and ratification of these international instruments for the protection of refugees, demonstrates its willingness to indulge in the major underpinning of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is surrogacy. This means that Kenya is willing to provide protection to people or persons fleeing persecution, and who are not afforded such protection in their home countries. Practically, Kenya provides asylum to more than 300,000 refugees. In further demonstration of its adherence to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Kenya boasts the world’s largest refugee camp located in Daadab, a town in Garissa County, Kenya. The camp commonly known as Daadab refugee camp was set up by the United Nations at the end of 1991, and early 1992 to accommodate the large influx of 800,000 Somalis fleeing the collapse of their State. Presently, while Somalis comprise the largest population in the camp, the camp also houses other African refugees from Ethiopia, Cameroon and Burundi, to name a few.
The closure of Daadab refugee camp, and sending thousands of refugees (mainly Somalis) back to their countries has been on Kenya’s national agenda since the onset of terror attacks in the country. Attacks such as the Garissa University College attack that left 148 dead, and the Westgate shopping mall attack which resulted in 67 deaths, has brought to the table, the issue of national security to the top of the Kenyan governments agenda. The perpetrators of the aforementioned terror attacks were linked to the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which has its origins in Somalia. Therefore, with the Kenyan government providing asylum to thousands of Somali refugees, it has used the platform for the terrorist by Somali Militants (Al-Shabaab) to advocate for the closing down of Daadab camps as a response to the terroristic threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The move by the Kenyan government which could evidently be categorized as “scapegoating” has one major victim, the refugees themselves, who can neither return home, or stay in Kenya if the government were to enforce shutting down the camps.
The seriousness of closing down the camps has been expressed by notable government officials in Kenya. After the Garissa University College attack, Kenyan’s Deputy President William Ruto warned that, “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.”
One of such radical change was the disbanding of the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA). The impact of this disbandment was the cut-off of crucial administrative services offered to refugees. This includes the provision of movement passes for those refugees wanting to go outside the camps. The disbandment of the DRA shows Kenya’s seriousness in sending back refugees at Daadab camps to their countries of origin. The DRA which was established alongside Kenya’s 2006 Refugee Act, had played an integral part in registering and assisting refugees in Kenya.
Criticisms of camp closure
Kenya’s decision to close Daadab refugee camps, described as the largest in the world has drawn criticisms worldwide. Amnesty International regional director for East Africa, Muthoni Wanyeki stated that “Kenya has an international responsibility to take care of the refugees, sending them away is an abdication of that responsibility and will no doubt put many lives at risk. Irrespective of this criticism, Kenya has the power to strip people or persons refugee hood under Article 4 (c) 2006 Refugee Act. According to Article 4 (c), a person shall not be a refugee for the purposes of this Act if such person has committed a serious non-political crime inside Kenya after the person’s arrival and admission into Kenya as a refugee. While this section is of paramount importance in tackling issues of terrorism carried out by refugee and asylum seekers, it utilization by the Kenyan government as an argument to close down Daadab camps would have been worthwhile. However, in a case where there are no refugee links to terror attacks, simply closing Daadab camps because, terrorists who had attacked Kenya, have the same nationality as the majority of refugees in camps is ludicrous. This is because despite security concerns in Kenya, there is no evidence that refugees are a security risk. In addition, despite citing terrorism as the reason for closing Daadab camps, there is no section of the 2006 Refugee Act that can be evoked by the Kenyan government for reasons for wanting to close Daadab camps. In fact, such a move would be against international norms and in contravention of the 2006 Refugee Act.
Irrespective of the criticisms levied upon Kenya, that its proposed closing of Daadab camps and sending refugee out of Kenya would be against international norms, there is no gainsaying Kenya should not be anxious in safeguarding its people, particularly if there is solid evidence that there is a linkage between Daadab camps and terrorist activities. While the reason to expel refugees has spilled into security and political matters, the real underlying issue has to do with economics. The onset of terrorism in Kenya has had an impact on its economic growth. Reports indicate that terrorists’ attacks over the last two years have led to a 25 per cent fall in visitor numbers, denting the country’s tourism industry. Additionally, taking care of refugees in the Daadab camps could be beyond the resources of the Kenyan government, and with donors from governments and international bodies at a low, the Kenyan government now view refugees as a burden, due to not gaining by hosting refugees in their country.
Economics not terrorism
Furthermore, since more attention has shifted to Syrian refugees, Somali refugees and other African refugees in Daadab seem more like a forgotten issue. Therefore, the proposed closing of the Daadab camps has again brought attention to refugees who seem to have been forgotten. However, a further analysis Kenyan’s decision may indicate that the major underlying cause for the proposed closing of Daadab camps is not terrorism but concern regarding economics. Kenya is likely to feel the burden when refugees no longer receive aids or have no method of sustainability. Therefore, it could be argued that the proposed closing down of Daadab camps could be a ploy by the Kenyan government to prompt monetary compensation from the international community to keep the camps going.
The UNHCR have begun making preparations for the relocation of refugees from Daadab camps. However, such preparation relies on monetary funds from donors and international bodies. Subsequently, as of July 26, 2016, UNHCR has appealed to donors for an additional $115.4 million to fund the evacuation of refugees from Daadab camps. UNHCR’s detail plan with the utilization of the funds is to reduce to population of Daadab camps into half, and the relocation of non-Somali refugees to camps in Kakuma. According to estimates by UNHCR, approximately 170,000 Somali refugees would return to Somalia during the course of 2017 and possibly in early 2018.
According to assertions and figures, tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia already live in urban centers throughout Kenya, and that figure is likely to increase if the proposed closures of camps are carried out. Following the government’s plan to shut Daadab camps, Somali refugees living in urban centers have been ordered to return to their designated camps. Kenya’s proposed actions of closing Daadab camps, if carried out would have an impact in urban areas in Kenya. Firstly, there is a likelihood of influx of refugees from camps into urban areas of Kenya. These influxes can be attributed to some of the refugees’ reluctance to be repatriated, and the opportunities working in urban centers in Kenya offers.
Nevertheless, the movement of refugees into urban areas is likely to have effect on refugees and Somalis living in Kenya. The influx of refugees into urban areas may give rise to xenophobic attacks. Additionally, unlawful discrimination such as the stop and search of Somalis to ensure there are legal migrants may be carried out by State agencies.
Why the Kenya government seemed to be serious in closing Daadab camps, the timeframe given to evacuate more than 300,000 refugees seem to be unrealistic. Additionally, UNCHR’s approach in trying to move the stipulated number of refugees from Daadab camps also seem to be illogical. More pressing is the issue of those refugees who are reluctant to be evacuated and may flee into urban areas of Kenya. Finally, Kenya’s proposed move would create an atmosphere for the persecution of Somalis and Somali refugees fleeing in urban areas of Kenya.
Tim Braimah is currently a PhD student at Huddersfield University, England and an Americorp Program Specialist in Nebraska, USA. Braimah has published on human rights and refugee issues in high ranking journals such as the International Journal of Refugee Law and the African Human Rights Law Journal. Notably, his work on sex trafficking in Edo State was used by the European Asylum Support Office as part of its report on sex trafficking in Nigeria.