Olumayowa Okediran: Expelling Refugees Won’t Solve Kenya’s Security Crisis

By November, Kenya will begin repatriation of refugees to Somalia, as it hopes to defeat terrorism and tighten security. Kenya refused all calls not to close down the refugee settlements after it gave way to the fear that the camps may be breeding security threats. About 350,000 refugees live in Dabaab, a network of camps in Kenya’s North Eastern desert, and about 150,000 more live in another camp, Kakuma. By sheer population, Dabaab is the third largest community in Kenya, only behind Nairobi (2,750,547) and Mombasa (799,668). The sheer size of the camp has  created  significant worry since the settlement can only get bigger.

It is understandable that the government of Kenya is putting the interest of the Kenyans ahead of refugees, especially after 214 people were killed during terrorist attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and Garissa University.  The Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for  both attacks. The government thinks the refugee camps may serve as a breeding zone for terrorists and as centres for smuggling, contraband trade, and illicit weapons proliferation. Thus, the government has committed to expunging the refugees from the country, hoping to resettle them in their native lands.

The President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, stated that his nation is ready to welcome the refugees to help with rebuilding the war-torn country. Nonetheless, turning the refugees out en masse within this short period would be drastic, especially for those who had never been to Somalia, having been born and raised in Kenya. If repatriation is inevitable, it should be undertaken gradually to reduce the shocks that would be felt by the Somalians.

Although the United Nations recently accented to the closure of the camp, the acting director for its High Commissioner for Refugees , Leonard Zulu, said the whole exercise would be a disaster. Notably, several of the refugees have known no other place besides Kenya, as they were born in the camp. The Dabaab camp opened in 1991, and several of the settlers were born and brought up in that camp.

Kenya’s action would make the idea that it recently passed its own laws in 2006 protecting refugee rights seem ludicrous. Before then, the country was a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee convention which forbade involuntary return of refugees to a country where they face persecution.  Besides reneging on its own guidelines, sending the refugees packing might not make Kenya any safer than it currently is.

Somalia’s insecurity was the major reason the refugees fled, with al-Shabaab still holding  sway in the East African country. If Somalis are returned to the same country where they fled, then it is certain that many would run back in the direction they came — into Kenya. This would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, especially after ten million dollars would have been spent to clear the site. However, this time, they might infiltrate the country knowing that the last time they settled together, they were chased away en masse. The refugees may also welcome offers from al-Shabaab, if they come along with improved welfare. After all, it is quite possible that the provisions given to them will be inadequate, thus creating a greater security threats to Somalia and its neighbouring countries.  

Kenya should instead strengthen its security measures within its borders to reduce threats to the lives and properties of its citizens. Security outfits should be properly catered for and equipped to combat crime and terrorism.  The country must also battle corruption to ensure systems put in place are not jeopardized by greedy public office holders. Citizens should be empowered to call security operatives for help using technology. This can be done while repatriation lasts to make Kenya as safe as it wishes to be.

Kenya may not go back on its decision to close down the Dabaab camp, as well as other refugee camps, after accommodating them for over 25 years.  However, if security is the only reason it is turning away the refugees, then it might be faced with similar challenges, as citizens are as capable of crime as refugees.

Olumayowa Okediran is a Young Voices Advocate and Director of African Programs at Students For Liberty.