Kenya Faces Growing Dispute Over Call to Deport Somali Refugees Over Al Shabaab Threat

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Kenya’s government is embroiled in a dispute with the United Nations after it ordered 350,000 refugees from Somalia to be sent back to their homeland within the next three months, claiming that their camp is a sanctuary for the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab. Now, the bishop of Garissa, where militants massacred 148 students earlier this month, has said that he backs the call for the camp’s closure.

The move, which comes at a time of heightened nerves over the terror threat, has been roundly dismissed by the UN as impossible and condemned by human rights groups as a serious violation of principles governing the treatment of refugees.

Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto announced on Saturday that the government had ordered the Dadaab camp — the world’s largest refugee camp  — closed within three months. “We have asked the UNHCR to relocate the refugees in three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves, he said. “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa… We must secure this country at whatever cost.”

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has described the move as “not possible” and insisted that the Somalis living in the Dadaab camp can only leave voluntarily, rather than by force. The majority of the refugees are said to be women and children, and the agency said a closure would have severe humanitarian consequences/

The demands for the closure of the camp has caused international concern, with human rights advocates warning that the refugees are being used as a scapegoat in response to an upsurge in al Shabaab terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil. Dadaab had already been singled out by the Kenyan authorities; following the 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead, the country’s interior minister made a similar demand, while Asman Kamama, head of the Kenyan Parliamentary Committee on National Security, described the camp as “a nursery for terrorists.”

Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that expelling the Somalis would be a major breach of refugee conventions.

“The decision to close down Dadaab overnight and force the Somalis living in the camps to south-central Somalia would be one of the largest violations of the principle of refoulement in recent history,” he said, referring to the prohibition of the forced return of refugees to places where their lives are threatened.

Simpson questioned why the government was going after Dadaab in particular. “There are currently 50,000 Somalis in Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, as well as Somali-Kenyans. I don’t see how they would justify [only closing Dadaab] given that this is ostensibly to protect Kenyan security. Similarly, if that’s the logic, why would the 32,000 Somali refugees in Nairobi be exempt from this measure? It might just be posturing.”

The move would be a breach of the UN Refugee Convention, the African Union Convention on Refugees, and of Kenyan law, he said, making it “one of the gravest violations Kenya could possibly commit.”

The government claims that Islamist militants use the camp as a hideout and to plot attacks. They also maintain that closing the refugee camp would allow authorities to focus on security threats coming from within their own borders. Recent reports have suggested that al Shabaab is recruiting in Kenyan towns  and the alleged mastermind of the Garissa University attack, named by the government as Mohamed Mohamud is a Kenyan citizen.

Paul Darmanin, the bishop of Garissa — the closest major town to the camp, which lies under his jurisdiction— said on the sidelines of a Vatican conference that he backed the government’s call for the closure, it was reported on Thursday. He said that while the security situation in Somalia was not good, it now had a central government and most attacks were directed against the authorities. Meanwhile the camp was generating tensions with local residents, many of whom were more impoverished than the now well-established refugees and were visiting Dadaab to get rations.

The bishop said he could not rule out the existence of militants in the camp.

“The nature of our society is to protect family and friend. The people in the camps cannot report dangerous criminals among them because they are family. While the closure may not end terror attacks, it will see a reduction in the channels for recruitments and planning of attacks,” he said.

On Tuesday, according to Kenyan newspaper The Star, some refugees reportedly took matters into their own hands and reportedly fled the camp, in a desperate attempt to reach neighboring towns and avoid being sent back to Somalia. Witnesses described how numerous police roadblocks forced lorries ferrying the refugees to abandon them, several miles away from the nearest towns. Many of them were then left with little choice but to walk the rest of the distance, with some later admitted to hospital suffering from severe exhaustion.

A 2013 Human Rights Watch report titled “You Are All Terrorists” documented a series of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Kenyan police against Somali refugees and asylum seekers, reporting that many in the Dadaab camp were falsely accused of being terrorists.

The Dadaab camp has housed many of the refugees for over 20 years after they fled war-torn Somalia in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Somali government between 1988-1990.

UNHCR spokesperson Karen De Gruijl told VICE News: “60 percent of these refugees are children. It’s important to note that these refugees fled a war so it would be a double victimization of them. We want to highlight the practical and humanitarian consequences of this decision and urge the Kenyan authorities to reconsider the matter.”

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