Kenya is planning to close the world’s largest refugee camp, which it says poses a security threat that could lead to terrorist attacks.
An estimated 330,000 refugees will be affected when the Dadaab camp in northeast Kenya is shut down. Most refugees there are from Somalia who escaped conflict in their country.
Kenya’s government announced plans to close the camp “within the shortest time possible.” But the United Nations and international human rights groups have criticized the move.
The U.N. refugee agency urged Kenya this week to reconsider its decision. The agency said in a statement that closing the camp would have “devastating consequences.” It urged the government to “avoid taking any action that might be at odds with its international obligations.”
Kenya’s Interior Minister, Joseph Nkaissery, said at a news conference Wednesday that the camp threatens Kenya’s security. He said the government believes the camp harbors extremists from Somalia’s Islamic al-Shabab group and is used to smuggle weapons.
Al-Shabab has carried out several major terror attacks in Kenya. In 2013 an attack on a Nairobi mall killed 67 people. A 2015 attack on a college in the town of Garissa left 148 people dead.
Al-Shabab began launching attacks in Kenya after Kenyan troops entered Somalia to fight the militant group in 2011.
Kenya’s government has admitted that closing the refugee camps will harm refugees. It urged the international community to take steps to minimize the pain and suffering.
Human Rights Watch senior refugee researcher Gerry Simpson says refugees are not the source of security threats in Kenya.
“There’s not a single shred of evidence that any registered Somali refugees in Kenya have been behind any attacks in Kenya.”
Simpson said that in the cases of both the mall and university attacks, Somali nationals who came directly from Somalia were charged with the terror offenses, not registered refugees.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka disagrees, saying that terrorists have used refugee camps to plan and train for attacks.
"I will tell you for a fact, like, the people who carried out the terror attacks at Westgate, several of them were traced either through phone calls or through various contacts -- intelligence -- to refugee camps in Dadaab.”
Government and security expert Mummoh Nzau agrees that terrorists have infiltrated the camps, and that the camps do pose a security risk. But he is calling for a careful approach to dealing with the situation. He said one option would be to relocate the camps.
“They can move them [the refugees] right inside Somalia, but in a way that it is safe for them, and but they can be accessed by the international refugee agencies and other aid agencies.”
Kenya and Somalia signed an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency in 2013 to voluntarily repatriate Somali refugees. As Somalia has slowly recovered from years of conflict, the Dadaab camp population decreased from more than 500,000 refugees to 350,000.
The United Nations said it planned to repatriate 50,000 more refugees this year. But officials admitted this repatriation would be a difficult task because the Somali government is still fighting an insurgency from al-Shabab.
Kenya, which has been hosting refugees for nearly 25 years, previously threatened to close the camps, but did not follow through.
The group Human Rights Watch noted that politicians often bring up the refugee issue during election cycles. Elections in Kenya are set for next year.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Words in This Story
devastating – adj. highly destructive or damaging
consequence – n. a result or effect of an action or condition
at odds – in conflict or at variance with something
harbor– v. to shelter or hide a criminal or wanted person
smuggle – v. to move items illegally into or out of a country
minimize – v. reduce something to the smallest possible degree
repatriate – v. to send someone back to their own country
insurgency – n. an active revolt or uprising