Kenya, UN and aid agencies disagree over closing refugee camps

UNHCR delivered 'roadmap' on closure demanded by Kenya but two sides remain far apart

In Summary
  • UNHCR, AI, others say conditions not suitable for return to violence-stricken homelands.

  • Kenya  on March 23 gave UNHCR two weeks to plan the return of refugees to Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, DRC and other countries. 
Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Turkana county.
NO MORE REFUGE: Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Turkana county.
Image: FILE:

Though closure of he Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps has again been ordered by Kenya, UNHCR, rights and aid agencies still say the time is not right.

On Tuesday, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, delivered a comprehensive roadmap on closure demanded by Kenya. Wednesday was the deadline after a two-week ultimatum.

Kenya says the camps in Turkana and Garissa are sources of insecurity and some terrorist attacks have been planned there. It wants them closed as soon as possible.

The refugee agency said there is no evidence of an escalated security risk arising from the camps in April this year.

The UN and agencies also say the time isn't right to move the refugees and UNHCR requests more time and resources.

The camps host more than 500,000 refugees, including more than 274,000 from Somalia.

Kenya should use its seat on the UN Security Council to press for more resources for refugees and host countries, Amnesty International and others argue.

A source aware of the UNHCR response said it was comprehensive and agreed with seven of 10 points raised by Kenya.

The three points of disagreement are at issue. The exact three are not known, except they probably deal with terrorism and need for closure as soon as possible.

Government officials led by Interior CS Fred Matiang'i are studying the response. The source said the CS may address the media or issue a statement this week.

"It's good progress so far," an official said.

Amnesty International Kenya said on Tuesday Kenya's ultimatum for a roadmap created fear the principle of non-refoulement may be violated.

Non-refoulement is a principle of international law forbidding a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country where they would likely be in danger of persecution or harm.

Refugees are from Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, the DRC and other countries where violence is rife.

Closing Dadaab and Kakuma camps without an orderly approach respecting rights  invites a humanitarian disaster within the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amnesty International 

Amnesty International said in a statement the circumstances in the region have not improved significantly for most refugees to safely return to their countries of origin .

Other countries have not come forward to resettle them.

“Conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia, pre and post-election violence in Uganda and Tanzania as well as the persecution of LGBTI+ communities in Uganda and elsewhere make voluntary, safe and dignified return untenable for most refugees," AI said.

“Closure of Dadaab and Kakuma camps without an orderly approach that respects refugee rights invites a humanitarian disaster within the global Covid-19 pandemic," AI executive director Irungu Houghton said in a statement.

He said the international community through inadequate funding undermines Kenya’s capacity to provide safety and sanctuary.

Houghton told wealthier countries led by the new US administration to fairly share responsibility by expanding opportunities for third-country resettlement.

He called for mass Covid-19 vaccination programmes for refugees and encouraged communities to host them.

“Rather than persecuting refugees, Kenya can use its influence at the UN Security Council to demand the international community shoulder its fair share of the responsibility to protect refugees,” Houghton said.

He said instead of a rushed decampment programme, Kenya and UNHCR must consider regional and international best practices.

“Long-term camps deprive thousands of men, women and children of their dignity and reduce them to dependents of humanitarian aid," the AI executive director said.

Houghton said local integration and self-reliance policies and programmes are needed to deliver the governments’ Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF).

“The Government of Kenya must not abandon its history as a sanctuary nation in the middle of a pandemic or a diplomatic dispute with the Government of Somalia," he said.

Two days after issuing the ultimatum, Matiang’i met virtually with 25 development partners mission in Nairobi on the issues of camp closure and refugee rights.

They included the UN, the World Bank and IMF. Foreign Affairs CS Raychelle Omamo attended.

Matiang'i and his team delivered their message on closing the camps, camps, citing insecurity and attacks linked to accomplices of al Shabaab. 

UNHCR urged Kenya to ensure any decisions on closure allows for suitable and sustainable solutions.

The complex situation has left the government torn between its domestic interests and international obligations, some of which are binding and can attract consequences if violated.

“UNHCR is concerned about the impact of this decision on protection of refugees, including during the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue our dialogue with Kenyan authorities," a UNHCR statement read.

The refugee agency promised to support Kenya in hosting the refugees and finding solutions that are orderly, sustainable and respect refugee rights,” it said.

Kenya is engaged in a maritime boundary dispute with Somalia over areas believed to be rich in oil and gas. Kenya has accused the  International Court of Justice of failure to honour its request to have the new team of lawyers prepare sufficiently.

(Edited by V. Graham)