The Kenyan government continues to step up claims that it intends to close Dadaab refugee camp and repatriate or resettle around 348,000 refugees due to the “heavy economic, security and environmental burden and Kenya’s national security interest.”
Refugees continue to be a scapegoat for Kenya’s security issues, despite the non-existence of successfully prosecuted terror cases involving refugees from Dadaab.
Interestingly, the government’s own human rights commission condemned the move.
Kenya has made this exact threat on two other prominent occasions — after al-Shabaab’s Westgate Mall (2013) and Garissa University College (2014) attacks — but failed to follow through in each case after an international backlash.
The administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta apparently has given refugees a deadline of May 2017 to vacate the camp — an unreasonable and ultimately illegal and unachievable timeline around which to expect refugees to voluntarily repatriate as laid out in the tripartite agreement.
A helpful way to understand the difficulty of refugee resettlement at Dadaab is to look at the numbers over the past few years.
While the data that UNHCR provides may not account for every movement in and out of the camp, the numbers tell some important stories.
From 2013-2015, UNHCR data shows the population of Dadaab dropped by about 70,000 residents (8% each year) — going from a total of 425,938 to 356,014.
But from January 2015 to the beginning of 2016, UNHCR only reported about 8,000 fewer residents, a 2% decrease, for a total of 348,015.
Refugees have decreased at Dadaab on average by 6% each year since 2013. At this rate, it could take decades to resettle all refugees unless monumental shifts occur in resettlement trends.
If this holds, Kenya may have to consider options apart from repatriation or resettlement — such as offering citizenship or another special status — if it truly seeks to close the camp.
Another interesting factor that impacts the size of Dadaab is the natural growth of the camp due to births of newborn babies. While it is hard to cull public data on the number of deaths at Dadaab, UNHCR generally publishes data on the numbers of registered births each month.
Statistics since September 2015 show that the number of births at the camp are often more than the number of reported returnees in a given month.
In 1991, Somalis fled to areas that would become the Dadaab refugee complex, and an entire world has grown to proportions that make it difficult to simply resettle the population back into the areas of Somalia from which many originally came.
The business opportunities springing from the location of the camp in Garissa county – ranging from transportation to commodity sales — has brought around $14 million in annual economic benefits to the local host community.
If Dadaab was shut down and these benefits were removed, it is a big question what kind of similar economic boost could be provided by the Garissa county government, which was recently voted the “most corrupt” county in Kenya.
Kenya appears to view refugees as too large of a security threat to consider mirroring Tanzania in its own efforts to grant citizenship to long-term Burundian refugees.
Instead, it wants to take the hard line that the U.S. and many European and Middle Eastern countries are employing to reduce the role they play as hosts in the migration saga.
Meanwhile, Somalia is planning to send 50,000 men and women to serve as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia in part due to the lack of job opportunities domestically.
But in reality, this is one of many signs — along with Somalia’s 1.1 million IDPs and 22,000 African Union troops that have not completed offensive operations against al-Shabaab — that Somalia cannot host 348,000 more new residents without massive improvements in security and infrastructure investment.
As Kenya seeks more money from the international community to close Dadaab, it may want to set aside some of those funds for development projects in Somalia.