The Insecurity of the World's Largest Refugee Camp


The Insecurity of the World's Largest Refugee Camp

Joshua Meservey

11 May 2015

The Kenyan government announced in April it will close Dadaab refugee camp, claiming terrorists shelter there. Kenya would be less secure if it went forward with its plans, argues Joshua Meservey.

Since Kenya's armed forces invaded Somalia in 2011 in pursuit of the terrorist organisation al-Shabaab, the country has endured more than 100 terror attacks. Al-Shabaab's latest major attack came on 2 April 2015 when four gunmen entered Garissa University in eastern Kenya and murdered nearly 150 students. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in the capital Nairobi.

The attack increased pressure on the government to find a solution to the wave of violence. On 11 April 2015, Deputy President William Ruto demanded that the United Nations remove Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp from the country within three months, continuing a longstanding government practice of blaming domestic insecurity on the country's refugees. Dadaab is a sprawling complex of five camps in Kenya's northeast near the border with Somalia. Today it shelters more than 330,000 Somali refugees.

Kenyan authorities are worried that al-Shabaab derives support from Kenya's refugee community, yet closing Dadaab in this manner would ultimately make Kenya less safe. It would feed the instability inside Somalia that imperils Kenya, and cause further suffering for refugees. Kenya should reconsider its demand for its own sake, as well as that of the refugees and Somalia.

Refugee camps often do pose security challenges for host countries. Armed groups throughout the world have used them for recruits, shelter, and food, and it is likely al-Shabaab does the same. Kenya claims that the mastermind of the Garissa attack had a support network in Dadaab, and the camp is also a trafficking hub for smuggled goods, some of the proceeds of which directly fund al-Shabaab. One of the perpetrators of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi may have lived for a time in Kakuma, a camp in the northwest that also hosts Somalis.

Closing Dadaab would directly impact Kenya's security.

Yet any security gains from shuttering Dadaab would be outstripped by the violence it would fuel inside Somalia that would in turn spill back into Kenya. If refugees are forced back to Somalia, some would likely join al-Shabaab in search of protection or income in a country with few opportunities. Many of Dadaab's residents fled Somalia because they were attacked and their property seized, assets that others likely now consider their own. Untangling ownership claims would be a difficult and potentially violent process of the type that continues to drive the devastating wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Closing Dadaab would also have a more direct effect on Kenya's security. The country is struggling with a growing rift between Christian and Muslim communities, which al-Shabaab tries to exploit to undermine government legitimacy and draw in recruits. Following the Garissa attack and earlier attacks in the northeast, some Christians demanded the government evacuate them from the region because they felt unwanted and insecure in Muslim-majority areas. Many Kenyan Muslims would also perceive forcing the primarily Muslim refugees from the country as the government again scapegoating their community. Kenyans now comprise the largest group of foreigners fighting for al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Kenyan government cannot afford to further alienate moderate Muslims when it needs their cooperation to combat al-Shabaab's influence over the border and domestically.

Refugee camps often pose security challenges for host countries.

The humanitarian consequences of Kenya's plan would be grave as well. Somalia already holds more than one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are frequently abused by Somali security services and others. Forcibly repatriated refugees would be at high risk of becoming IDPs themselves and subject to the same abuses. Despite the setbacks al-Shabaab has experienced at the hands of a multinational force, it still controls areas of the country and stages frequent, bloody attacks against Somalis and the international presence there.

It is unclear whether, or quite how, Kenyan authorities will follow through on their threat to close the camp. Doing so is illegal under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention Kenya has signed. Spectacularly violating the Convention by forcibly closing Dadaab would bring international condemnation down on Kenya's government, though it would be popular with many Kenyans. The government also lacks the capacity to move so many people in the two months left of its deadline, and has asked for international aid to do so, which it is unlikely to receive. The only option left is to forcibly push the refugees out, something the chair of Kenya's Refugee Affairs Commission on 29 April 2015 said the country would not do, though he also insisted the camp will be closed. On 6 May 2015, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta also said his country would not forcibly repatriate any Dadaab refugees.

Ruto's demand, and the subsequent conflicting comments from the Refugee Affairs Commission, may have been the latest government attempt to pressure refugees to repatriate on their own. Kenya has been trying to empty Dadaab for years, and the frustration over its lack of success has led it to try to coerce refugees into leaving by making the camp as inhospitable as possible. Since Ruto's comments, there has been an uptick in the number of Somali refugees taking part in the United Nations' voluntary repatriation programme.

Closing Dadaab before conditions are right would be a serious mistake that would fuel instability in Somalia and Kenya, and heap further suffering upon people who have already experienced the worst that life has to offer. Advocating for refugees to remain in camps is cruel in some ways as they are often desolate outposts of boredom and hopelessness, but for now it remains the best option for most Somali refugees, for Somalia, and for Kenya.


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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.