OP-ED: On Kenya’s Declaration to Close Dadaab Refugee Camp

Op-ed by Ahmed Hassan, who is a social activist and critic interested in Somali politics. You can find him on Twitter at @pansomalist.

28 May 2016 —- On 6th of May, Kenya’s interior ministry has shockingly announced what seems to be an overnight plan to close the world’s largest refugee camp, citing the main reason as its threat to security.

To show the world that it’s not a an empty threat, it has disbanded the Department of Refugees Affairs (DRA) and a few days later formed a task force that many fear will intend to forcefully repatriate hundreds of thousand refugees to Somalia within one year.

It has become a trend to blame refugees for every misfortune from terrorism to economic hardship. It is absurd to think that sending refugees home will make Kenya safer and improve its economic status. Instead, this plan will create a human tragedy because, as a senior advocate for refugees Mark Yarnell, said closing Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps is equivalent to wiping out two large cities off the face of earth.

But what is behind Kenya’s plan to get rid of the refugees?

As the electioneering period continues, the ruling party seems to have borrowed a page from Donald Trump’s playbook. It is no coincidence that the announcement came shortly after Jubilee coalition reelection campaign has kicked-off. The closure of the refugee camps seems to be a campaign gimmick just like Donald Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border intended to prevent influx of migrants.

The ruling party has failed to deliver two of its main promises, to improve the economy and fight corruption. So, it is now seeking to divert maximum attention to refugees. They want to blame refugees for their failures.

Secondly, as the refugee crisis in Europe deteriorates, the attention of international donors has shifted from refugees hosted in the Global South to the Northern Hemisphere. Kenya undoubtedly feels the refugees it hosts will continue to be neglected and is looking for enhanced financial and material support — especially when it comes to repatriating refugees back to Somalia. 

Lastly, President Kenyatta already has used refugees as a bargaining chip in response to the U.S. government’s aviation warning and Kenya may try to play the refugee chip to get more support for its security operations in Somalia as well. Kenya recently threatened to withdraw its troops from Somalia because the European Union cut salaries to African Union peacekeepers and because the international community has failed to ensure other force multipliers are available to the mission.  It is unclear to what degree President Kenyatta is willing to scale back his refugee repatriation plans in order to get concessions from the international community on security issues. But Kenyatta may draw more criticism than concessions with this move.

The Blowback

The thinking that repatriation of refugees will reduce al-Shabaab cross-border attacks is naïve at best. Repatriating hundreds of thousand refugees means sending potential recruits to al-Shabaab.

There are thousands of young people who either study or work in the refugee camps and forceful repatriation will render them idle. Hence, al-Shabaab could fill that gap, radicalize them, and send them back to Kenya for terrorist operations.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Given the level of corruption in the government institutions, Kenya cannot protect its porous border. Sending these youth and other refugees to an unstable environment, will not only create a human disaster but also a new pocket of angry youth filled with vengeance and ready to join a cause they otherwise would not believe in.

There are thousands of Kenyans who work in the camps for both the Kenyan government and non-governmental organizations. Closing these camps will automatically terminate their jobs and render them jobless.

Given these likely scenarios, mass refugee repatriation will not achieve the security or economic interests at the center of Kenya’s Dadaab declaration.

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