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Kenya’s threat to close Dadaab camp plays on international refugee fears

Refugees waiting to receive essential items, including food, jerry cans, blankets, soap and plastic sheeting, at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. Jo Harrison/Oxfam

The Kenyan government says that it plans to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. It had also threatened to close the country’s other major refugee camp, Kakuma, but has subsequently said it won’t. Speaking at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Deputy President William Ruto declared that Dadaab will be closed by the end of the year.

This move has gained much-needed attention. Kenya continues to host one of the largest refugee populations at a time when international attention has overwhelmingly turned to Europe and the movement of people out of Syria. Despite hosting more than half a million people, the camps’ remote locations and longevity have made them easy to ignore.

In addition to the planned camp closure, Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs has been shut down. Though the government has threatened to restrict refugees to camps or close the camps altogether several times before, this suggests a worrying escalation. Established in 2006 alongside the country’s Refugee Act, the department worked with the United Nations Refugee Agency to register and assist refugees in Kenya. Who will fill the gap left by this closure is unclear.

While not in this case, previous threats have often followed bloody terror attacks such as at the ones at the Westgate Mall in 2013 or Garissa University College in 2015. These have led to refugees being equated with terrorism, and Dadaab being labelled a “nursery for al-Shabaab”.

The reality is that the camp highlights the violence that has led many to flee Somalia for the relative safety of Kenya.

The perceived danger posed by the movement of refugees serves as a useful tool in populist politics. It can serve as a bargaining chip in negotiating further aid or galvanise fearful citizens. As Donald Trump’s fear mongering over Syrian refugees and anti-migrant rhetoric in South Africa have shown, this is not unique to Kenya.

Grave consequences

If enacted, the government’s plans would have grave consequences for the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Kenya. Global resettlement of refugees is already low and unlikely to meet the needs of those being told to now leave Kenya.

The closure would result in refugees returning to unsafe countries, moving to other countries in the region that already have their own extensive refugee populations, shifting from Dadaab to the already overpopulated Kakuma or making dangerous journeys to try to reach safety further afield. The move is also in breach of national, regional and international law.

The recent start of campaigning for the 2017 Kenyan elections and the announcement concerning refugees is not coincidental. Like the plans to build a border wall with Somalia, the scapegoating of refugees plays out well with parts of the electorate.

The timing of this move, and the reasons behind it, hold important lessons for understanding refugee situations around the world. In particular:

  • that longstanding humanitarian situations should not be ignored;

  • that there are very deep inequalities between different refugee populations; and

  • that, in a world increasingly fearful of the presence of refugees, there is mileage in host countries drawing attention to the burden they carry.

Uneven response

The images of the protracted crisis in Kenya’s camps or new crises in the region have received comparatively little attention compared with the global response to the refugee influx into Europe.

In 2015 alone more than a million people fled to Europe and the images of boats overflowing with people, stormed fences, demolished camps and drowned children have brought some of the realities of forced displacement to the forefront of Europe’s collective conscious. Despite the attention, rich countries have resettled only 1.39% of Syrian refugees and keeping displaced people at a distance is still the dominant position.

Since the end of 2013, South Sudan has produced close to three-quarters of a million refugees.

Fighting following the contested presidential election in Burundi in April 2015 has produced over a quarter of a million refugees.

Yet, the consequences of these conflicts in terms of population displacement are often ignored.

This is in part because the vast majority of refugees from both of these countries do not end up on boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Instead most are hosted in the camps and cities of countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Not all refugee experiences are equal and many of those in East Africa don’t register for those outside the region.

International attention

Beyond internal populist politics, the Kenyan government’s announcement is also concerned with what can be gained from the outside. In a crowded humanitarian market, where the situation in Europe and the Middle East has eclipsed other refugee situations, the Kenyan government has threatened the one thing it knows will garner international attention.

The proposed closure of Dadaab stokes fears in Europe about another movement of people towards its borders and brings focus to a region often overlooked. And as the European Union’s recent deal with Turkey has shown, European leaders are willing to go to great lengths to keep refugees out.

They have also offered increasingly large sums of money to African governments willing to help halt migration. From Niger to Kenya, refugee-hosting countries are aware of the financial gains to be made by playing on these fears. While the government claims to be steadfast in closing Dadaab, greater financial concessions from donors may still lead to a change of mind. It’s also unlikely any government would wish to preside over a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

The use of refugees for financial or political rewards is an extremely dangerous and worrying trend. But, it is an important reminder of the dangers of overlooking crises just because they appear to be “managed” in distant camps. In the meantime, the lives of more than half a million people in Kenya hang in the balance.

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