Closure of refugee camps
The unlegislated closure of refugee camps is illegal under the Kenyan Refugees Act of 2011.
By Qaabata Boru
The Kenya Constitution incorporates the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1969 OAU Convention on refugee problems in Africa, while the Refugees Act of 2011 is an act of parliament to make provision for the recognition, protection and management of refugees and for connected purposes.
However, the directorate at the Ministry of Interior has simply decided to mutilate the Kenyan Refugees Act.
On 6 May 2016, the Kenyan Ministry of Interior made a statement to close down all the refugee camps in the country, where it has hosted more than 600,000 persons of concern to international protection. The same ministry also disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA). DRA was set up to oversee the registration of persons, management of refugee camps and determination of refugee status in the country in accordance with the Refugees Act. Therefore, such actions would contravene the principle of non-refoulement that Kenya is signatory to which affirms that persons of concern have the right to seek protection. Some weeks after the disbandment of DRA, the Ministry of Interior set up the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) that is assumed to take over the full responsibilities similar to DRA.
Refugees in Kakuma and Dadaab camps regard the decision to close the camps as malicious and felt threatened. “I arrived in Ifo camp in Dadaab in 1994, since then I never moved out of here. I can’t return because it’s not safe now.” Abdallah Hajji told KANERE. Thousands of Somalis in Dadaab complex felt that their livelihoods are threatened if they are forced to leave the camps.
Kenya had set a November deadline to shut down Dadaab camps and reiterated that Somali refugees must go back to Somalia. On June 20, Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery stated that the camps would no longer be tolerated despite the international pressure to shelve the planned closure of camps.
However, the Ministry of Interior issued another statement on 21 August that Dadaab camp will stay, immediately after US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kenya for talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta on regional security and counter-terrorism cooperation as well as next year’s election.
On 16 November, the Kenya government extended the deadline for closing the Dadaab refugee complex in what it said was the “delicate security situation in Somalia.”
Since the announcement was made calmness has been restored in the refugee camps but the pressure from both the UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR and government remains high for people to return to Somalia. “We welcome the announcement to reconsider closure of camps and we hope repatriation remains voluntary for all Somali refugees.” – a Somali community leader told KANERE in Kakuma.
The Kenya government cited heavy economic, security and environmental burdens as a major reason to shut down the Dadaab refugee camps and accused the international donors of doing little to support refugees. However, the United States being a huge donor to the world’s humanitarian agencies has secured $45 million US Dollars to Kenya in this year alone to mitigate the refugee crisis in the country.
In 2013, the government of Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement setting out grounds for repatriation of refugees. According to Kenya government officials, refugee camps like Dadaab have been assumed to be hosting grounds for Al-Shabaab – a Somali based terror group. In 2015, a Kenyan government official stated that Dadaab is a nursery of terror plans. Over the years the situation in Somalia has remained unstable slowing down voluntary return for Somali refugees.
Since the tripartite agreement was signed in September 2013, just about 30,000 refugees have been returned voluntarily. The others, the UNHCR says, have either returned to Somalia on their own or left the camp for other countries to seek asylum.
For refugees in Dadaab, there’s no definite assurance that the camps will not be closed down by the end of May 2017. Their entire economy is grey. The inhabitants live on rations which have been cut. The refugees there are trapped in limbo and for the half a million residents seeking sanctuary in Dadaab, it is their last resort.
As the refugee crisis in Kenya seems to be overshadowed by the European refugee and migrant crisis, the question remains: What next for the inhabitants of Dadaab?