The Kenyan government announced plans last week to shut down all its refugee camps — including the world’s largest camp — in a decision that will affect more than 600,000 people already displaced by famine and war.
The move will affect two major camps in Kakuma and Dadaab. The Kakuma camp holds about 190,000 refugees, mostly from South Sudan. The camps in Dadaab hold around 300,000 people, primarily Somali refugees fleeing from Al Qaeda-linked Shabaab insurgents in their war-torn country.
To explain the closures, Kenyan officials cited economic issues with keeping the camps operating and security concerns stemming from the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
“The government of the Republic of Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, has decided that hosting of refugees has to come to an end,” Dr. Eng Karanja Kibicho, Kenya’s interior ministry principal secretary, said a statement. He said the timeframe for the closures will be “within the shortest possible time” because of these security issues.
GOVERNMENT STATEMENT ON REFUGEES AND CLOSURE OF REFUGEE CAMPS pic.twitter.com/kQVyv1T51G
— National Police (@NPSOfficial_KE) May 6, 2016
Kibicho indicated that the government will also disband its Department of Refugee Affairs, which works to process refugee registration. He implored the international community to help take on the humanitarian needs of the refugees who will no longer be able to stay in Kenya.
Human rights advocates condemned the announcement, expressing concern that Kenya’s move could be a violation of international law that puts hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way.
“This reckless decision by the Kenyan government is an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk,” Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director in East Africa, told The Independent. “It could lead to the involuntary return of thousands of refugees to Somalia and other countries of origin, where their lives may still be in danger. This would be in violation of Kenya’s obligations under international law.”
“In a single breath, the Kenyan government recognizes that the Somalis it has been hosting for nearly 25 years are still refugees, but then states it’s finished with them,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenya should not turn its back on people needing protection and on fundamental principles that it has pledged to respect.”
Planned closure of Dadaab & Kakuma refugee camps in #Kenya highlights continued and blatant neglect of millions of refugees around the world
— MSF International (@MSF) May 6, 2016
I took this photo in Dadaab, worlds largest refugee camp. Kenya is closing the camp, home to 300,000 Somali ppl pic.twitter.com/heC3cX8FKa
— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) May 7, 2016
Over the past several years, al-Shabaab insurgents have committed attacks on civilians in Kenya, and have claimed responsibility for the Garissa University attack that killed 147 people last year. The group has also promised to continue the attacks in Kenya “for its role in peacekeeping in Somalia as part of the African Union forces,” the German news outlet Deutsche Welle reported.
Still, as HRW pointed out, officials have not provided any credible evidence linking Somali refugees to any terrorist attacks in Kenya.
Refugees trying to resettle in Europe and the United States have faced similar claims to terrorism ties. In the United States, more than two dozen governors previously supported measures to block refugees fleeing conflict in Syria from being settled in their states citing concerns that they may carry out terrorist attacks. But in the years since the terrorist attack in September 2001, three resettled refugees were arrested for planning terrorist activists: two planned attacks outside the country while the plans of the third “were barely credible.” And in Europe, officials believe that there has been little evidence that Islamist jihadists are arriving in rickety boats disguised as migrants fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
The refugee camps in Kenya were in troubled states before the planned closure was announced. Last year, the United Nations began distributing 30 percent fewer food rations there because of a shortage of money for its relief operations. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) distributed about “9,300 metric tons of food for 500,000 refugees each month,” a UN press release stated at the time.