Kenya will not force Somali refugees out, despite deadline for camp closure

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kenya will not forcibly repatriate some 336,000 Somalis living in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, but the government intends to continue with its plans to close the camp within three months for security reasons, a government official said.

Following a major attack by Somali militants earlier this month, Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto gave the United Nations until July to relocate all the refugees from Dadaab camp.

Since then, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and international charities have urged the government to reconsider its decision, fearing refugees’ lives would be in danger if they are forced back to Somalia.

It is illegal under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention to force refugees back to areas where their lives are threatened.

“While we are committed to the return of all refugees, more so Somali refugees, you will not see us holding people by the head and the tail and throwing them into lorries to take them across the border,” Ali Bunow Korane, chair of Kenya’s refugee affairs commission, said on Wednesday in Nairobi.

He was speaking at a meeting of U.N. officials, aid agencies and civil society, organized by the Rift Valley Institute think tank, to discuss the implications of closing Dadaab.

The camp, near Kenya’s northern border with Somalia, is an hour’s drive from the Kenyan town of Garissa where al Shabaab militants killed 148 people at a university on April 2.

Some Kenyan politicians have said the Somali militants use the camp as a hideout.

“The group which attacked Garissa earlier this month … they stayed in the refugee camps,” said Korane. “They assembled their arms there.”

Kenyan and Western security sources have said there is no actual evidence linking Dadaab or refugees to the Garissa attack.

Kenya has targeted refugees after previous attacks by Somali militants. After the 2013 siege in Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate shopping mall, the police arrested thousands of refugees in Nairobi and took them to refugee camps, describing it as a security measure.

“Refugees are convenient scapegoats,” another speaker at the event, Melissa Phillips, a researcher with the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a Nairobi-based research and advocacy group, said.

UNHCR’s chief, Antonio Guterres, is due to visit Kenya and Somalia on Tuesday to discuss the government’s plans. Kenya wants the U.N. to help it raise funds to pay for the mass repatriation.

“We want these people supported to go back to Somalia by developing the necessary social infrastructure across the border,” Korane said.

“When we talk to refugees themselves through their elders they say they are ready to move tomorrow if you can show us the social infrastructure exists.”

A 2014 UNHCR survey of refugees in Dadaab found less than 3 percent intended to return to Somalia within the next two years due to insecurity and lack of housing, schools and healthcare.