11 January 2014 – Dadaab refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, is located sixty miles from the Kenya-Somalia border and sits in the hot dusty red sand town of Dabaab. The camp was first established to temporarily house refugees that fled Somalia due to the civil war that started in 1991. It is divided into three outskirt sub-camps: Ifo, Dhagahley, and Hagadhere.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Kenya hosts more than 673,000 refugees with 81 percent (544,480) being ethnic Somalis. Refugees from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea, and others make up the rest of the camps’ populations.
While the safety in the camps is better than some chaotic cities in Somalia, many refugees have experienced harsh living conditions and abuse from law enforcement in Kenya.
For example, in May 2012, Kenyan authorities were accused of looting markets and arresting refugees after an explosion took place in Dhagahley camp. According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2012, “Kenyan police arbitrarily arrested, detained, and beat refugees following the discovery of explosives and an attack on a police vehicle in the Dadaab refugee camps in mid-May 2012. The report recommended that “senior officials visiting the camps on May 23 should ensure a full and speedy investigation leading to the identification and disciplinary measures against any officer responsible for abuse and the compensation of victims.”
Not ready to go back
Recently, Kenya’s Administration and National Security committee chairman Asman Kamama told his fellow citizens that “refugee camps in Kenya will be closed once all the refugees return to their respective countries.”
However, the camps cannot be closed legally through unilateral action by Kenyan authorities, and UNHCR responded by stating camps will be open for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the recent tripartite agreement between Kenya, Somalia, and UNHCR has set up a basic framework to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees.
A key issue will be whether refugees in the camps who have been given the option of returning home will in reality be forced (illegally) to leave. Equally important, the process to voluntarily repatriate more than half a million Somali refugees will present a tragic outcome, and here’s why:
- Somalia is struggling with its own Internally Displaced Persons–as there are more than 1,132,963 IDPs in the country–and cannot handle the massive influx of return refugees
- The embattled government of Somalia is incapable of providing adequate security and safety passage for the refugees that are ready to resettle back in the country
- There are no refugee returnees’ legislation or adequate projects and processes in place that will assist those “volunteering” to return home to reclaim their properties
- Grounds gained by AMISOM, Ethiopia, and the Somali government from al-Shabaab militants do not translate to prosperity for returnees who do not have adequate resources to re-start their lives
- Clan wars still exist in Somalia and fear of retaliation attacks may force some refugees to not return home indefinitely.
Independent writer interested in African and Middle Eastern politics.