Kenyan Minister and Media Stir Confusion on Refugee Return

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Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku recently made misleading and factually incorrect statements about the repatriation of Somali refugees.

The Kenyan media’s subsequent misreporting of Lenku’s statements caused further confusion—resulting in UNHCR having to correct growing rumors that refugee camps were to be shut down and all refugees repatriated.

During a tour of Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, Lenku stated:

“All the camps should be closed and the debate on whether or not it is appropriate has been passed by time…We urge the agencies to move those programs to safer areas in Somalia. Permanent structures should also be scaled down.”

Lenku’s wish that refugee camps be closed and NGOs moved to Somalia was more a matter of opinion than an order within his sole authority.

And contrary to Lenku, the debate on whether repatriation is “appropriate” is still very much alive.

International laws and the recent tripartite agreement (between UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia) provide clear protections to refugee rights of safe and voluntary return and highlight host nation responsibilities to uphold these freedoms. [Download PDF of signed tripartite agreement]

Nevertheless, Lenku discussed repatriation in front of what appeared to be an unimpressed audience of refugee leaders, stating, “It is not for you to complain. It is for you to seize the opportunity.”

Habib Musa, a refugee leader, emphasized that the country still remains unsafe for many who want to return to the Jubba region and other areas where al-Shabaab, the Somali government, AMISOM, Ras Kamboni, and other militias continue fighting along the main roads and towns.

Other statements by Lenku suggested a tone that was hostile to the notion of voluntary return:

“We will not change our plans. There is no turning back. It is time to say goodbye and wish you the best as you go back home. Go and help your country rebuild.”

Some observers thought Lenku was attempting to create the impression among 474,000+ refugees that return was not voluntary.

This would not be an uncommon strategy. As IRIN news noted, a report published by UNHCR in September 2013 stated:

“In the worst cases, employing the notion of ‘voluntary’ repatriation is arguably a manipulation of language that is used to legitimize politically expedient returns that do not meet basic protection criteria.”

Meeting basic protection criteria for refugees’ return is one of several responsibilities to countries like Kenya who are a party to the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Under Article 33, the convention states:

Article 33 – Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)

1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (” refouler “) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Additionally, under Article 24 of the tripartite agreement that Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed signed, Kenya affirmed further concrete obligations to support refugees until “durable solutions are attained.”

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Despite these obvious legal restraints and obligations, Lenku was likely signaling to wider Kenyan audiences that he was taking “action” on refugees–who along with many of Somali descent have been scapegoated to radical terms as sources of insecurity.

Kenyan Media Stir Confusion

Kenya media outlets further misconstrued Lenku’s statements by publishing factually incorrect headlines implying that Lenku had executed some kind of authority to order the closure of refugee camps and repatriation of all Dadaab camp’s residents.

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UNHCR’s Kitty McKinsey responded swiftly on her Twitter account to the mis-statements and misreporting by issuing corrections and assuring accurate information would be available to refugees.

False Start

Some observers have been hopeful that the spontaneous return of an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 refugees to Somalia since January would represent the start of more voluntary returns.

Interim Jubba Adminstration and Ras Kamboni leader Sh. Ahmed Madobe, who is supported by Kenya, has tried to do his part by urging refugees to return to the Jubba region.

With AMISOM requesting more troops to fight al-Shabaab and the Somalia government waiting on the New Deal Compact to enable the country’s development assistance to ostensibly reach beyond Mogadishu,  it is difficult to tell when larger areas of southern Somalia would be seen as safe and hospitable for refugees–some of whom having never been to Somalia.

On the future prospect of returns, UNHCR’s representative in Kenya Raouf Mazou sounds more realistic than Lenku:

“Just like in Liberia, this is not a one-day event. It will take long to take all the refugees to Somalia. Dadaab will continue to grow.”



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