Kenya to close the third-largest refugee camp in the world

For close to three years, Kenya has been looking for a way to close the world’s largest refugee camp, but its plans have been unsuccessful until the January 15 attack on the Dusit hotel and office complex in Nairobi that left 21 dead gave the country a good excuse to displace and repatriate millions who call Dadaab refugee camp home.

According to AFP, an internal United Nation’s document noted that Kenya plans to close Dadaab refugee camp which is home to 230,000 people, the majority of whom are Somalis who fled across the border following the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

As of 2016, there were 320,000 residents in the three-decade-old Dadaab camp. No thanks to the “repatriation package” by the Kenyan government, tens of thousands of refugees returned to drought and hunger filled Somalia.

For thousands to return to a country where African and Somali forces are still fighting Al-Qaeda-aligned Shabaab militants. Questions began to arise on their willingness to do so. Even Amnesty International said it had documented government officials threatening refugees and telling them they had to leave.

Kenya believes that the Al-Shabaab militant group are recruiting people from Dadaab, especially Somalians and this belief was heightened by the fear caused by the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013. That same year, the country engineered and successfully signed a tripartite agreement to repatriate Somalians living in Dadaab with Somalia and the UNHCR.

The 2015 Garissa University College attack that killed 148 people resurrected Kenya’s plan to close the camp as it asked the UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to a designated area in Somalia within three months. In May 2016 the government unilaterally decided to close the camp, saying it was a terrorist training ground for Shabaab Islamist militants based in Somalia.

 By 2017, Kenya’s High Court ruled the plan to close the camp was unconstitutional, violated Kenya’s international obligations and amounted to the persecution of refugees. With the January 15 attack on the Dusit hotel and office complex in Nairobi that left 21 dead. Kenya is seeing no reason to continue with the camp and has decided to shut it down, leaving Somalians in the camp no choice but to return to their country.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) document stated that Kenya had sent a note informing the agency of “plans to close the Dadaab camps within a six-month period.” The country also asked the UNHCR “to expedite the relocation of the refugees and asylum-seekers residing therein.”

The Dadaab refugee camp can be likened to a city as it has urban features such as high population density, economic activity, and concentration of infrastructure. Refugees in Dadaab typically live in tents made of plastic sheeting.