Kenya backpedals on closure of Somali refugee camp

Kenya appears to have softened its stance on the imminent closure of a camp hosting more than a third of a million Somali refugees, weeks after the deputy president announced it would happen within three months, as he reacted to the massacre at Garissa University.

“While we are committed to the return of the refugees, you will not see us holding them by the head and tail and throwing them across the border,” Ali Bunow Korane, who chairs Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Commission, said Wednesday.

Korane was addressing a gathering organized by the Rift Valley Institute's Nairobi Forum where officials from the UN, aid agencies and civil society discussed the implications of closing Dadaab refugee complex, where more than 330,000 Somalis live.

He acknowledged that, while it was Kenya’s policy to encourage refugees to go back to Somalia, the country “does not provide a conducive environment for mass return.” This is also the position of UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, and most aid agencies working in Somalia.

Korane said Kenya was working to mobilise international support to improve security and build up social infrastructure, such as houses, schools and hospitals, in order to make potential areas of return more viable.

On 11 April, Deputy President William Ruto announced that the Kenyan government had asked UNHCR “to relocate the refugees [in Dadaab] within three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves.”

Ruto spoke shortly after 148 people, mostly students, were murdered in a university in the northern town of Garissa, in an attack claimed by al-Shabab. Although al-Shabab is primarily a Somali jihadist insurgency, it has recruited many Kenyans, including, by many accounts, some of those who carried out the university killings.

But Korane said of the attackers: “They stayed in the (Dadaab) refugee camp; they assembled the arms there.”

“Kenya has very serious security challenges that have a direct bearing on refugees,” he added.

Voluntary return?

In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement in which all parties committed themselves to the principle of voluntary return. Kenya remains engaged with the tripartite process and, according to UNHCR, on 29 April took part in a technical committee meeting convened to discuss the agreement’s implementation.

“The only way forward is to continue working for the implementation of the tripartite agreement,” UNHCR’s Senior Regional Protection Officer Eva Camps said at the gathering.

Camps noted that a pilot project launched in December to assist refugees returning voluntarily from Dadaab to three locations in Somalia had not delivered “satisfactory results.” Of a target of 10,000 returns by June, so far just 2,048 have gone back under the project.

Several thousand others have however left Dadaab for Somalia with no involvement of UNHCR.

am/ag