Kenya gives refugees six more months to leave camp

Refugees | Closure of the world’s largest refugee camp delayed on humanitarian grounds
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 11/17/16, 11:17 am

Kenya said yesterday it has postponed the closure of the world’s largest refugee camp by six months after international groups requested the delay on humanitarian grounds.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said the United Nations refugee agency had requested more time in shutting down Dadaab camp, which was scheduled to close Nov. 30. The country’s volatile security situation and upcoming elections also made it difficult for Kenya to meet the deadline, Nkaissery said.

“The government has accepted a request to extend the deadline for the completion of repatriation of Somali refugees and eventual closure of the Dadaab Refugee Complex camp by six months,” he said.

Kenya officially announced its plans to shut down Dadaab camp in May. At the time, the camp housed about 350,000 refugees, the majority of them from Somalia. The government said the camp served as a breeding ground for al-Shabaab insurgents and posed a security threat to Kenya. The camp first opened more than two decades ago as a temporary shelter for people fleeing the civil war in neighboring Somalia. But continuing violence in the region turned the camp into a refugee city, complete with its own schools and clinics.

Ben Rawlence, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, said there’s an undeniable need for refugees to be resettled under more humane conditions, but questioned the process and speed with which the Kenyan government first began the undertaking.

“The first problem is Somalia is not safe and people who have voluntarily gone back to Somalia are now coming back,” Rawlence said. “The second thing is it’s expensive and time-consuming to move people without disrupting their education and healthcare, and if you do it in a rush, people are going to get hurt.”

Nkaissery said the Kenyan government would begin a detailed repatriation program in December to ensure the refugees’ safety. He said the government would confirm the refugees’ registrations before relocating them to camps within and outside the country. The process also will involve the rehabilitation of the camp, which the government plans to refurbish once all the refugees have been relocated, he added.

Dadaab camp now houses some 283,558 refugees. About 35,000 have voluntarily returned to Somalia since 2014, according to the UN refugee agency. The Kenyan government provided voluntary returners with security escorts, while the UN offered financial assistance to aid their resettlement. Nkaissery said the extension would not affect the ongoing voluntary return process. In separate reports, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both questioned whether the returns where actually voluntary. The two groups had interviewed some of the refugees, who said they face intimidation from Kenyan authorities and are not told of options that would allow them to remain legally in the country. Under those conditions, many camp residents said they chose to return to Somalia, despite the security dangers they faced.

Laetitia Baders, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch Africa Division, said the camp’s extension is much needed, but the move still remains insufficient in assisting the refugees.

“Instead, they should be working to publicly reassure Somali refugees they can stay in Kenya and will be granted protection until it is safe for them to return home,” she said. “As long as Kenya continues to deny Somali refugees both legal status and a secure home, this long at-risk population will continue to live in fear.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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