Kenya Blames Terrorists for Its Decision to Close the World's Largest Refugee Camp

The government in Nairobi has long threatened to close the doors of Dadaab refugee camp, home to more than 300,000 refugees mainly from neighboring Somalia.
May 24, 2016, 5:05pm
Photo par Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Kenya is sticking with its plan to close down the world's largest refugee camp after more than two decades of operation, as the country's Deputy President William Ruto reiterated this week that facilities would cease operating by the end of the year.

The government in Nairobi has long threatened to close the doors of Dadaab refugee camp, located in northeastern Kenya and home to more than 300,000 refugees, mainly from neighboring Somalia. Over the last month, Kenyan officials have become increasingly adamant about the need to shut down the site, with Ruto doubling down on the commitment this week at the UN humanitarian summit in Istanbul.

According to Ruto, the facility housing Somalis, displaced by decades of war and the ongoing threat from the homegrown militant group al-Shabaab, will be closed by the end of 2016.

"The refugee camp poses an existential security threat to Kenya," he said addressing the summit on Monday evening. Ruto argued that recent attacks in Kenya, including the Westgate mall rampage in 2013 and the Garissa University massacre in 2015, which claimed hundreds of lives, were planned at Dadaab.

"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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In addition to threatening Kenya domestically, Ruto told Reuters the alleged extremists also pose a global risk.

"There is radicalization by extremist elements in the camp, especially of young people," he said. "Their recruitment into terror networks, including al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, is a threat to the world... The route to (Islamic State) is established."

The United Nations and Western states have warned against forcibly repatriating the 350,000 or so Somalis who still live in the sprawling Dadaab camp in northeast Kenya, saying it would violate international obligations.

Dadaab sprung up in 1992 as an influx of Somali refugees began to flow across the border as the country was entrenched in civil war. Instability in the more than two decades since has continued to force Somalis to flee the country.

Speaking in Istanbul, Ruto said the international community had failed Somalia, still struggling to recover from the anarchy of the 1990s. The official expressed frustration that other states have lagged on pledges to rebuild Somalia. He said Kenya has spent $7 billion on Dadaab over the past quarter century.

"We understand well our international obligations," he said. "We have unfortunately... not seen a shared responsibility in Somalia. We not only risk leaving Somalia behind, we risk forgetting Somalia all together."

Kenya wants the international community to build schools and other infrastructure across the border to lure refugees back.

On the sidelines of the summit, Ruto also met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The pair reportedly discussed the humanitarian and security challenges facing Kenya, particularly with instabilities in the region in Somalia and Burundi. According to a statement from the UN about the meeting, Ban expressed concern over the plan to force Dadaab's residents out of the camp.

"[The Secretary-General] recognized the extraordinary humanitarian role Kenya has played over the years as one of the world's foremost refugee hosting countries, but pointed to the potentially devastating consequences of prematurely ending refugee hosting for hundreds of thousands of people," the UN statement [said](The Secretary-General expressed his concern about the intention of the Kenyan Government to end the hosting of refugees in Dadaab citing economic, security and environmental burdens. He recognized the extraordinary humanitarian role Kenya has played over the years as one of the world's foremost refugee hosting countries, but pointed to the potentially devastating consequences of prematurely ending refugee hosting for hundreds of thousands of people. ).

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The government has previously threatened to eject refugees, but this time Ruto said it will stick with a deadline expiring in six months. He said this timeline was agreed upon with Somalia.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said in January it might miss a 2016 target to repatriate 50,000 refugees because the Somali government is battling the al-Shabaab insurgency and provides few public services. Somalia is slowly rebuilding and is due to elect a new parliament in August.

A military operation kicked off in 2011 against the militant group led by the Kenyan military and African Union has pushed the insurgents out of several strongholds in Somalia. Kenya has also increased its efforts recently in the wake of the Westgate and Garissa attacks, but so far this year al-Shabaab has ramped up the number of civilian attacks and suicide bombings in Somalia, particularly in the capital Mogadishu.

Ruto said exiled communities were needed to help Somalia through the recovery process.

"It would not be possible to comprehensively work on peace, reconciliation, and stability without the participation of the almost 1 million refugees who currently live in our country," he said.

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