Kenyan court forces the country to review its options on Dadaab refugee camp

An aerial picture of a section of the Hagadera camp in the Dadaab complex near the Kenya-Somalia border. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

The hundreds of thousands of people living in Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab refugee camp have been spared eviction – for now. Early in February the High Court in Nairobi overturned a government directive to close the camp and disband the country’s department of refugee affairs.

The judgment was delivered in response to a petition filed by two human rights bodies, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Kituo Cha Sheria or Legal Advice Centre. They were supported by Amnesty International.

There are 324,735 registered Somali refugees in Kenya. Of this number 256,868 are housed in the Dadaab complex in an area of north eastern Kenya close to the Somali border.

The Kenyan government made the decision to close the camp based on the assertion that it was a breeding ground for terrorists. The plan was to repatriate the refugees or to resettle them.

Kenya remains determined to close the Dadaab complex. Mwenda Njoka, a spokesperson for Kenya’s ministry of interior, said:

Our reasons for closing the camp are still valid. The camps are still a haven for terrorists. We intend to appeal the ruling.

From the government’s perspective refugees in the camp are not only perceived as a terror threat but also as a drag on the economic development of the country.

But Justice John Mativo declared that the proposed repatriation of Dadaab’s residents violated Kenya’s Constitution and the country’s international obligations. He also rejected the government’s plan to close the department of refugee affairs.

This is but a temporary relief for Dadaab’s residents. Kenya’s government must now go back to the drawing board and try to find a long-term solution for the refugees in the camp.

Next steps

Kenya has no choice but to comply with the court ruling.

So what are its options?

In the short term it can work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate Somali refugees who have agreed to return to Somalia voluntarily.

Kenya could also reach out to other African countries and ask them to share the refugee burden in accordance with Article 2.4 of the 1969 AU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which states that solidarity and international cooperation should foster willingness among African nations to share the burden of hosting refugees.

Another option is to try and reach some kind of agreement with Canada, which already hosts a large community of Somalis and is one of the few countries in the world that remains open to refugees fleeing war and terror.

The international community has a role to play here, too. Other nations have claimed to understand Kenya’s “refugee fatigue”, though neither governments nor private entities have offered much support in the form of donor funds. With better financial support from the international community, Kenya’s government could possibly reconsider its desire to completely shut down Dadaab.

Managing the ongoing crisis

The global refugee crisis will not end any time soon. It will need to be managed on an ongoing basis and I’d suggest that, in the medium to long term, there are three ways for Kenya to do this: through local integration of refugees; resettlement in a third state or voluntary repatriation.

The court’s ruling means that refugees will remain in the Dadaab complex for the time being – and that others will more than likely join them. Kenya may have to consider opening new camps or enlarging the existing ones, which suffer from chronic overcrowding.

Currently, this seems to be the most viable solution. But it will require a huge boost in donor funds. Since the decision to close the camps, Kenya has been seeking funds for repatriation.

If this strategy were to change in the aftermath of the High Court ruling, Kenya would need to seek camp funding afresh.

There’s a compelling case for resettlement in a third state. Urban refugees are not very welcome in the Kenya. They often suffer arbitrary arrest and extortion by police, who ask them for bribes in exchange for their freedom. Refugees are also victims of a xenophobic local population.

Kenyan authorities are particularly concerned by the flow of small arms from Somalia into urban areas, something that is often blamed on refugees. In addition, numerous unaccompanied minors are engaged in survival sex and do not receive sufficient protection. Finally, a very high number of urban refugees are unregistered.

In light of all this, resettlement to another country is probably one of the better solutions to Kenya’s refugee situation.

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the US Department of State was working hard to clean out Kenya’s refugee camps. It was preparing to admit the highest number of Somalis to the US in 30 years during 2017.

But the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on January 27 changed everything – at least temporarily – in US refugee policy.

Before the Kenyan High Court ruling Mohamed Abdi Affey, the United Nation’s Special Envoy on the Somali refugee situation, highlighted the importance of a regional response that would include providing continued protection to Somali refugees in Dadaab.

Moreover, following the Kenyan government’s decision in 2016 to close the camp, the UNHCR presented a plan of action at a meeting of the Tripartite Commission – comprising Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR – and an agreement was reached with the Kenyan government to delay the closure.

The last few months have seen the Kenyan government pitted against civil society in the quest to find the most durable solution for the Somali refugees in Dadaab.

While Kenya is still seeking the closure of the camps, civil society has consistently highlighted that a possible repatriation of all the Somalis in Dadaab is not a viable option given the political uncertainty in Somalia.