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We Spoke to Residents Facing Eviction as Kenya Prepares to Close the World's Largest Refugee Camp

Kenya has threatened it before, but this time it looks like it's serious — it is preparing to close a camp home to more than half a million refugees. Many face a dangerous repatriation to Somalia.
Imagen por Henry Wilkins/VICE News

Katra Ismail Abdi has lived in the world's largest refugee camp since 2011, when her house was destroyed by a rocket and her son was killed in crossfire between the Somali government and the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. One of her five other children had a nervous breakdown after witnessing his brother's death.

"When Yasin saw the bleeding he went mad," said Katra, adding that her now 22-year-old son still has psychotic episodes, but if she was able to go to Nairobi for proper treatment she believes he could recover.


Now, the entire family face being returned to the home country they had to flee, following an announcement by the Kenyan government earlier this month that it would close Dadaab — its third biggest "city," home to at least 350,000 refugees — because it had become a costly burden that was sheltering terrorists. Many of Dadaab's residents are from Somalia, where al-Shabaab, security forces, African Union troops and allied militia still mount regular indiscriminate attacks, according to monitoring groups.

The international community has urged Kenya to change its mind, saying the closure would risk lives and breach international law — but the government insists the camp has become an "existential threat" to the country as a haven for terrorism and contraband smuggling.

"This is the worst time in the camp. I believe the world has abandoned us," said Ismail Abdi.

Katara Ismail Abdi, 40, fled Somalia after her son was mentally traumatized by the death of his brother and disappearance of his father. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

On Monday, Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto told a United Nations World Humanitarian Summit that the closure would go ahead. "Kenya has been faithful to her international obligations of humanitarian assistance but no country can shoulder humanitarian responsibilities at the expense of the security of her people and the refugees themselves," he said.

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Earlier this month, the Kenyan Interior Minister explicitly linked his government's actions to moves by European nations to limit refugee populations. "We will not be the first to do so; this is the standard practice worldwide," said a statement. "For example in Europe, rich, prosperous, and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two."


Kenya's Department for Refugee Affairs (DRA), which provided permits for refugees to exit the camp and for journalists to enter the camp was disbanded soon after the original announcement was made.

Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, is home to at least 350,000 people. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

Ali Hussein Sahal, 26, is a Somalian refugee studying mass communication at a university in Nairobi. His education is funded by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, but because he was visiting family in the camp when the DRA was disbanded he is unable to get an exit permit to return to his studies.

"We arrived in Dadaab in 1991," he said. "My mother is very worried [about the closure]. We have no experience in Somalia and have grown up in this camp. She's worried I may be taken back without completing my studies."

Al-Shabaab has been widely reported to forcibly recruit young men in the regions of Somalia they control.

When asked if he was concerned about being forced to join the Islamist group if he returns Ali said, "Of course that's a worry for me and everyone in this camp. I have no experience in fighting. We were born in this place where there is peace."

Ismail Abdi agreed. "[If we have to return to Somalia] I fear for the fate of my children because al-Shabaab may recruit them," she said. "In the camp my children have free education and if they go back to Somalia they will lose that."

Ali Hussein Sahal, 26, has lived in Dadaab since he was an infant and now cannot return to his studies in Nairobi. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

Not all refugees in Dadaab are against returning to Somalia. Aden Karow Aden, 30, came from Bakool in Somalia after a famine struck the country in 2011. He arrived in Dadaab with his wife and six children.


"I want to return because I love my country. Life is very hard here [in Dadaab]. I have children and I can't feed them," he said.

Asked about how the mood had changed in Dadaab since the closure was announced Aden said, "The people are fearful about what will happen in the near future. Will the Kenyan government come and arrest us? Will they beat us? Will they put us in vehicles and take us to the border?"

The DRA and UNHCR organize repatriations jointly. When the DRA was shut recently Aden's repatriation ground to a halt. He had already given away his house to a shopkeeper as a debt repayment in anticipation of his return to Somalia, meaning he now has to stay with friends.

Aden Karow Aden, 30, wants to return to Somalia but has been prevented by the closure of the DRA. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

Although some refugees do want to return home, the UNHCR has voluntarily repatriated just 13,440 of Dadaab's 340,00 inhabitants in the last 18 months. One survey cited to VICE News by the International Rescue Committee suggests 97 percent of refugees do not want to return, with lack of security the number one reason for why.

The Kenyan government has threatened to close Dadaab in the past, but this time it's thought to be serious, given the announcement was preceded by the revoking of prima facie refugee status for Somalians and was followed by the closure of the DRA and the setting up of a national taskforce to implement repatriation.

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The government has long said Dadaab is a breeding ground for al-Shabaab and the threats to close it have gained significantly in seriousness since the militant group launched a major attack on Garissa University in April 2015, killing 148 people. "The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa," Ruto said shortly afterwards. "We must secure this country at whatever cost."


Some commentators have suggested the government is bluffing in order to gain more funding from the international community, while others have suggested the government may be pandering to anti-immigrant voters in the run-up to next year's election.

Inside one of the many makeshift homes which fill Dadaab. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

A representative of the UNHCR in Dadaab said, "At the moment, we are still seeking to fully understand the meaning and implication of the government's announcement… UNHCR will continue to remind Kenya of its international obligations and the critical role it plays in the region." When asked if the UNHCR believed the closure would go ahead, he declined to comment.

Kenya's obligations to help refugees are clearly stated in international law, said Robert G. Voltera, a partner at Volterra Fietta, a law firm based in London. He believes the consequences for Kenya's future dealings with the international community would be too serious for them to actually go through with closures.

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Other nations would not look kindly on Kenya failing to live up to its legal responsibilities, he said."If you're liar and a cheater no one's going to want to play cards with you."

Along with other camps in the country Kenya plays host to around 600,000 refugees. A displacement this large could also have implications for the refugee crisis in Europe.

The inhabitants of Dadaab are faced with repatriation to Somalia. Photo by Henry Wilkins/VICE News

One refugee commented she had heard of many refugees who were planning to make their way to Europe if the closure goes ahead.

When asked whether he knew of anyone planning to travel to Europe Ali replied, "I've never heard of anybody that's planning that [but] that's a real possibility. Of course there will be people who will risk their lives to travel to Europe instead of going back."

"I want the world to save Dadaab not only from Kenya, but to support Dadaab economically so [the refugees] don't risk joining an Islamist group or crossing to Europe."

Follow Henry Wilkins on Twitter: @Henry_Wilkins

Related: Kenya Faces Growing Dispute Over Call to Deport Somali Refugees Over Al Shabaab Threat