Kenya’s announcement earlier this month that it planned to shut down its refugee camps may have seemed sudden to outsiders, but it was no surprise to the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Dadaab and Kakuma, two of world’s largest refugee camps.
In Dadaab, in northeast Kenya, many believe the authorities have long been trying to make life more difficult as a way to encourage refugees to return home.
“The way things have been going on, it was clear to us that we are being pushed to the wall,” says Abdullahi Osman, one of Dadaab’s refugee leaders. “We are not surprised to hear of the closure of the camp. We have already felt the burn.”
Over the last few years, for instance, there have been up to 50% cuts to food rations, healthcare has deteriorated, and the shelters in this isolated arid region have remained poor.
When Kenya announced the shutdown of camps, it also officially disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), a key partner with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in running the day-to-day activities of the settlements. However, refugees say that DRA services were already sporadic.
Furthermore, one week before Kenya’s directive, UNHCR-Dadaab announced it would be closing one of the camp’s main hospitals due to funding shortages. This news was met with frustrated protests within the camp, and many refugees saw it as a direct attempt to make conditions even more unbearable. Some even say they feel like aid agencies have been colluding with the government by scaling down humanitarian services, though the organisations strongly deny this and point to severe funding shortages.
Nevertheless, given the direction things have been moving the last few years, Kenya’s recent announcement simply felt like the final nail in the coffin to many of Dadaab’s residents.
“We have been crying out a lot, calling on the international community to come to our rescue but no one has heard our voices,” says Osman.
Dadaab was originally set up as a temporary settlement following the start of Somalia’s civil war in 1991, but in the intervening years it effectively became permanent. It has now been in existence for a quarter of a century and is home to around 350,000 people − if it were classified as a town, it would be one of Kenya’s five biggest by population.
Yet over the last few years, the Kenyan government has repeatedly spoken of shutting down Dadaab, claiming it to be an economic burden and refuge for terrorists.
The evidence for both these assertions, however, is weak. For instance, Kenyan authorities collect millions of shillings every year from businesses run by refugees, a 2010 study found the total economic benefits of the camp to be $14 million per year (or about 25% of annual per capita income in North Eastern province), and economic activity in the camp is impressive despite severe restrictions. Additionally, the Kenyan government shoulders just a tiny fraction of the costs of running the camp.
Meanwhile, in terms of security, Dadaab residents have typically been the victims rather than the perpetrators of terror attacks. Refugees are generally very hostile to al-Shabaab, they see Dadaab as their only home, and several camp leaders have been killedwhile volunteering alongside Kenyan police and UNHCR to protect the settlement.
Nevertheless, anti-refugee rhetoric has gained political currency, and in 2013, a controversial and rushed tripartite agreement was signed between Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR in order to facilitate “voluntary” repatriation for Somali refugees to areas in Somalia deemed safe.
Although some areas within these zones were relatively conducive for return, not all refugees had somewhere to live upon return or sustainable livelihoods. Barely 14,000 have returned since the exercise began in December 2014, and many of these ended up being displaced a second time and fleeing back to Dadaab, pointing to the ongoing risks.
Amino, a depressed and weak pregnant mother, was one of those. Only a few months after she returned with her family to her house in Baladweyne in south-central Somalia at the end of last year, four armed men attacked them, raped her, and killed her husband.
“I pleaded to them that I was pregnant but they never listened to me,” she says as she sits on a tattered mat with her two children. “They ordered us to leave the house with immediate effect, claiming that it belongs to them. My eldest daughter is still missing.”
While Somalia may be making progress on various fronts in combating al-Shabaab militants, Amino and many others’ experiences of double displacement suggest that returning even to areas deemed safe is still full of dangers. And this is not even to mention the additional complications if all Kenya’s 600,000 refugees were to return home around the same time.
An impossible choice
Amino is now back in Dadaab, but has had to register again from scratch. Another omen of the camp’s impending closure was that last month, prima facie refugee status for those from Somalia was revoked. This means that those fleeing from the country need to apply for asylum on a case by case basis, a long process in which they have no right to shelter, food or medicine and are subject to removal by security forces.
In many ways, Amino’s story represents the impossible choice facing Kenya’s refugee population as a whole: keep battling to survive amidst increasingly unliveable conditions in the camps; or risk everything by returning to still unstable regions.
Kenya too faces a choice: to continue demonising refugees and shut down the camps, endangering hundreds of thousands of people’s lives; or to harness the energy and economic activity of refugees by giving them the right to employment and freedom of movement.
Nairobi seems to have happily stumped for former, but the choice for refugees like Amino is much tougher and perilous.
“I never thought I would face such dangers when I returned to Somalia, but coming back to Dadaab has proven to be even more life threatening,” she says.