Date: 02 December 2016

Ineffective and dangerous: Kenya’s refugee camp closure puts regional stability at risk

Kenya’s decision to close the Dadaab refugee camp in May 2017 risks exacerbating security concerns and will not necessarily reduce the threat posed by al-Shabaab
Dadaab refugee camp

By Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies

On 24 October 2016 the first buses left the Calais ‘migrant jungle’, taking an estimated 6,500 migrants and refugees who had been living in the makeshift camp to refugee centres across France. Less than one month later, on 16 November, and a continent away, the Kenyan government announced that it would postpone – but not abandon – its controversial plan to close the Dadaab refugee camp, which hosts 330,000, mostly Somali, refugees. While these two recent cases vary in scale, size and context, they both reflect the growing move for governments to restrict the space available for the hosting of migrants and refugees in response to national-security concerns. Such thinking, however, is often short-sighted. While it may temporarily address some of the national security concerns faced by those states hosting refugees, it seldom offers long-term security solutions and can in fact be counterproductive.

Such a scenario is especially well demonstrated by the current developments in Kenya. The government’s plan to close down the world’s largest refugee camp by May 2017 and to repatriate its inhabitants – as an answer to security threats from the Somali terrorist organisation al-Shabaab – risks exacerbating security concerns. In fact, paradoxically, the very policy being pursued in the name of national security is itself raising serious security challenges. By leaving no alternative but to ‘empty’ the camp in the coming months, the Kenyan government is creating a destabilising situation that could breed insecurity in a region already prone to instability. Young repatriated Somali male refugees, for example – facing few job prospects and a lack of support networks – will be even more vulnerable to recruitment, forced or voluntary, to al-Shabaab’s ranks and those of other criminal groups, thus fuelling the terrorist network and criminal elements.

Moreover, closing Dadaab will not necessarily reduce the terrorist threat posed by al-Shabaab. This is because simply closing the camp does not do anything to weaken the existing networks between Kenya and Somalia, by means of which al-Shabaab militants are able to cross the Somali–Kenyan border. Even with the closure of the camp, Kenya will remain at risk of terrorist attacks.

With a recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council highlighting that 74% of Somali refugees in Dadaab are unwilling to return home, largely as a result of insecurity in Somalia, a significant number of these refugees may seek an alternative to repatriation by moving to already overburdened neighbouring countries, such as Uganda. On top of this, the sheer numbers of people who will need to be repatriated within such a short timeframe could generate serious humanitarian challenges.

Also of concern to the international community is the fact that the camp’s closure sets a precedent for other large refugee-hosting countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, to close or restrict access to their camps. With these two countries together, as of July 2016, hosting more than 1.3 million refugees (Uganda hosts 568,414; Ethiopia hosts 741,288), any policy moves along the lines of those made by Kenya would have serious implications for regional stability and security. The Kenyan government’s actions could also have direct implications for countries outside its immediate neighbourhood, as greater numbers of Somalis may risk the journey further afield to other places, such as Europe or South Africa.

Furthermore, the camp’s closure – even with the six-month postponement to May – does not seem logistically viable given the fact that, as of the end of October, only 28,393 of the Somali refugees had been repatriated since the beginning of 2016. Despite this reality, the government has decided to move ahead with the planned closure, playing on the general feeling within Kenya that Somali refugees pose a threat to national security, a fear reinforced by the periodic al-Shabaab terrorist attacks. With the Kenyan national elections set for August 2017, the camp’s closure will also come at a time when it could be politically advantageous for the government to be seen to be taking a hard line on national security.

If governments are serious about addressing the real national-security concerns connected with the hosting of refugees, they should abandon moves such as the closure of the Dadaab camp, which generally serve only to appeal to popular sentiment (69% of Kenyans support the closure of the Dadaab camp). Instead, they would be wise to invest in long-term policies that seek to address some of the underlying causes of insecurity. Areas for attention would include the development of proper police and judicial training in working with refugees and migrants; the building up of critical infrastructure and services to address the needs of both refugees and host communities; and the creation of strong integration initiatives. Such an investment would entail collaborative effort on the part of national and municipal governments, international organisations and civil society, as well as the necessary financial resources. Resisting popular sentiment, while also working with the many varied actors involved, is not easy, but is fundamental in order to seriously address security concerns and to avoiding making short-sighted policy decisions that are ineffective, destabilising and, indeed, potentially dangerous.

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