Kenya’s closure of refugee camps causes alarm

13 May 2016

UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Aerial view: the Ifo 2 Refugee Camp in Dadaab, 2014

Aerial view: the Ifo 2 Refugee Camp in Dadaab, 2014

THE United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has expressed “profound concern” over the decision by the government of Kenya to close all refugee camps in the country, on the grounds that they are an economic, security, and environmental burden. It has urged them to reconsider.

The move, which could displace more than 600,000 people, was announced by the Kenyan government last Friday in a statement from the Ministry of Interior.

It said that the government had disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, and was working to find a mechanism for closing all of Kenya’s refugee camps, starting with Kakuma, and Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somalia border.

Dadaab, formed 23 years ago, is thought to be the largest in the world, and is home to more than 300,000 people.

“As a result of hosting these refugees, the Government of Kenya has continued to shoulder a very heavy economic, security and environmental burden on behalf of the regional and international community,” the statement read.

“In the last few years there has been a lot of effort put to address the issue of repatriation of refugees from Somalia which culminated in the Tripartite Agreement. . . [which] laid grounds for repatriation and eventual closure of refugee camps.”

The UNHCR said in a release last week that for “almost a quarter of a century. . . the safety of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, South Sudanese and others has hinged on Kenya’s generosity and its willingness to be a leading beacon in the region for international protection.”

“In light of this”, the agency said, “and because of the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have, UNHCR is calling on the Government of Kenya to reconsider its decision and to avoid taking any action that might be at odds with its international obligations towards people needing sanctuary from danger and persecution.”

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There are two other refugee camps in Kenya: Alinjugur and Nairobi. In 2015, the UNHCR reported than more than 99 per cent of refugees in all four Kenyan camps had fled from developing countries, the majority (72 per cent) from Somalia, and 16 per cent from South Sudan.

The Kakuma camp received about 4185 South Sudanese refugees in 2015, the majority of whom were children and women. About 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes since violence broke out in South Sudan in December 2013; 678,000 of these are now refugees elsewhere, and 1.69 million are displaced within the country.

In its statement, the Kenyan government cites security fears in light of recent terrorist attacks in the country as reason to “reconsider the whole issue” of hosting refugees, and concludes that “having taken into consideration its national security interests . . . hosting of refugees has to come to an end.”

The statement also urges the international community to take responsibility for the humanitarian needs of the thousands of refugees who are likely to be displaced.

The head of the humanitarian division at Christian Aid, Nick Guttmann, said: “Such sanctuary for people in dire need is exactly why we have international obligations to welcome refugees. To close the camps now would be to heap yet more misery on people with nowhere to call home.

“The UK and other governments should scale up their support to host countries, like Kenya, and others around the world, so that they are able to honour their obligations and provide support to people who have already suffered so much and cannot return to their own countries for fear of persecution and war.”

The latest UNHCR figures (June 2015) state that there are 552,272 international refugees, and a further 1474 Kenyan refugees, in the country; there are also more than 43,000 asylum-seekers, making the total population of concern in Kenya more than 625,000.

In the previous March, the agency recorded 22,456 unaccompanied child refugees in Kenya. It also reported an 88-per-cent funding gap, amounting to more than £173 million, in the country.

The lack of international funding led to a 30-per-cent cut in food relief to the Kakuma and Dadaab camps from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which said that temporary rationing was the only way to make its supplies last longer. WFP distributes 9300 metric tons of food for the more than 600,000 refugees in the camps each month, at a cost of £6.6 million.

On the same day as the announcement in Kenya, Pope Francis questioned the future of Europe, which he said is struggling to uphold its foundations “for a bastion of peace”, built from the fragments of world war, and to accept responsibility for the refugee crisis.

“The ashes of the ruins could not extinguish the ardent hope and the quest of solidarity that inspired the founders of the European project,” he said on Friday of last week. “We, the heirs of their dream, are tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences here and there.”

The Pope was delivering his acceptance speech for the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, in Germany, in recognition of his work towards European solidarity. It was presented by the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz.

He went on: “Solidarity should never be confused with charitable assistance, but understood as a means of creating opportunities for all the inhabitants of our cities – and of so many other cities – to live with dignity. Time is teaching us that it is not enough simply to settle individuals geographically: the challenge is that of a profound cultural integration.

“I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being.”

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