Government of Kenya announce intention to close camps hosting 600,000 refugees

Dadaab refugee camp in KenyaAround 600,000 refugees live in camps in Kenya.

The Kenyan government have issued a statement announcing their intention to close the camps at Dadaab and Kakuma. They acknowledge that while some refugees have been in the country for almost twenty five years, Kenya has “continued to shoulder very heavy economic, security and environmental burden on behalf of the region and international community”.

A tripartite agreement between Somalia, Kenya and UNHCR was meant to lay the ground for repatriation and the eventual closure of the refugee camps.

“Due to the immense security challenges such as threat of Al Shabaab and other related terror froups that hosting has continued to pose to Kenya and due to the slow nature of the repatriation, the Government of Kenya has been forced by circumstances to reconsider the whole issue of hosting refugees and the process of repatriation.”

Kenya government statement on closing camps 1The statement goes onto admit that “this decision ill have adverse effects on the lives of refugees and therefore the international community must collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action”.

The Kenyan government has disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs “as a first step” and are now working on a mechanism to close the two refugee camps “within the shortest time possible”.

The Independent online newspaper reports the response of Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director in East Africa. He described the decision as “reckless” and “an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk”.

“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.”

Kenya government statement on closing camps 2Liesbeth Aelbrecht, Medecins sans Frontieres’ head of mission in Kenya, echoed that sentiment saying the closure was another instance of the “blatant neglect of millions of refugees”.

Ten NGOs working with refugees in Kenya issued a joint statement acknowledging “the hospitality and responsibility that the Government of Kenya has borne over decades” hosting 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority from Somalia, South Sudan and Burundi. The scale of the Kenyan camps dwarf the Jordanian camps that appear more often in TV reports about Syrian refugees.

  •  The directive to close the camps violates the general principle of voluntary repatriation of refugees living in Kenya in a safe and dignified manner back to their countries of origin. Additionally, the directive will draw back on the gains made so far in the repatriation process.
  • Kenya, over the years, has been recognized as a safe haven for persons seeking refuge from conflict and environmental disasters. Shutting down the refugee camps will mean increased protection risks for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers – majority of who are women, children and unaccompanied minors. The current humanitarian situation in Somalia and South Sudan remains dire and fragile. Somalia is faced with drought and other security risks that are likely to see an increase in displacement and vulnerability. In South Sudan, despite the return of the Vice President, Riek Machar to Juba, a positive step towards ending the on-going conflict in the country, the humanitarian crisis is far from being over. Currently, displacements continue both within the country as well as to neighbouring countries and the situation could be exacerbated by the forced return of refugees from Kenya.
  • The Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) as established by the Refugee Act, 2006 delivers crucial administrative services for refugees and asylum seekers and its disbandment would create an immediate critical service provision and coordination gap for management of refugee affairs. Additionally, DRA plays an extremely vital role in the current voluntary repatriation process under the Tripartite Agreement and the decision to disband it will stall these process.

The statement finishes:

We therefore urge the Government to withdraw the directive to disband the Department of Refugee Affairs and reconsider its intention to close refugee camps in the country in line with its good record of upholding its obligations towards hosting refugees and asylum seekers.

(The International Rescue Committee, World Vision, the Danish Refugee Council, Jesuit Refugee Service, Action Africa Help International, the Lutheran World Federation, OXFAM, Refugee Consortium of Kenya, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Heshima Kenya.)

Further reporting in the Guardian.