Closing the camps: Kenya’s déjà-vu politics

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Hanno Brankamp explores refugee politics in Kenya. The government’s announced closure of its refugee camps is not just a worrying déjà-vu; it is driven by national politics and a renewed bid for more donor funding. While it seems highly unlikely that Kenya will actually close Dadaab, the government is likely to seek a diplomatic horse trade. Hanno is a DPhil Candidate in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He tweets at @SpreeLumumba

On May 6, the Kenyan government released a statement, saying it had disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) and will close the country’s refugee camps, Dadaab and Kakuma. Kenya currently hosts some 600,000 refugees, the vast majority coming from Somalia and South Sudan. The official release – signed by the Principal Secretary of the Interior, Dr. Karanja Kibicho – cites the country’s “very heavy economic, security and environmental burden” as key reasons for the decision.

In a follow-up statement, Foreign Secretary Amina Mohammed asserted that hosting refugees was no longer financially tenable for Kenyan tax-payers, despite the fact that key expenses in camps, such as food, schools, health services, water supplies, housing, and even top-up salaries and vehicles for Kenyan Police are paid for by UNHCR. Meanwhile, refugee reception centres at Nadapal and Kakuma are filling up quickly with up to 100 new refugees arriving every day. The disbanding of DRA had immediate consequences for camp residents, as one of the agency’s tasks was to issue travel permits for refugees seeking specialised medical attention in Nairobi.

Although unexpected, neither Kenya’s order to close the camps nor its harsh rhetoric come as a real surprise. By evoking “national security threats”, Kenya’s government claims that Somalia’s Al-Shabaab – who have committed numerous attacks in Kenya since 2013 – find safe havens in Dabaab and Kakuma. Though not unthinkable, this allegation is based on little to no hard evidence. While camp closure might sit well with a domestic audience demanding an end to chronic insecurity, it alienates Kenya’s civil society, international partners, and puts hundreds of thousands of refugees at risk.

Yet, Kenya has a track record of threatening to expel refugees. In April 2015, a few days after an Al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University College – which left 148 people dead – Vice-President William Ruto announced the closure of Dadaab refugee camp. For some, this first closure attempt was but a political manoeuvre to showcase Kenya’s indispensability as a linchpin state in the region, carried out on the backs of refugees. After high-level diplomatic efforts by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), EU governments and the United States, promising a raise in donor funds, Kenya soon backpedalled on its closure plans. The US alone pledged an additional $45m. Last week’s government announcement seeks to renew this bid for donor funding.

Two years ago, in April 2014, Kenyan security forces rounded up thousands of refugees and ethnic Somalis during “Operation Usalama Watch”. Kenyan authorities forced Somalis from Nairobi’s infamous Eastleigh estate into the refugee settlements Daadab and Kakuma. Hundreds of refugees were even deported to Mogadishu.

But this series of heavy-handed responses is hardly new. On various occasions, former Presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki called for refugee deportation. In 1990, Moi authorised the removal of over 1000 “illegal aliens” – refugees from Rwanda and Uganda – from Kenya and their instant repatriation. Upon arrival in Uganda, many refugees were taken into custody by Ugandan security forces, screening them for “rebels”, “non-citizens” and “criminal elements”.

In December 1996, neighbouring Tanzania issued a similar directive for the return of Rwandan refugees. Following a notice by then-President Benjamin Mkapa, thousands of Rwandans began to flee in panic from refugee camps in Karagwe and Ngara Districts, fearing forced cross-border displacement at the hands of Tanzanian authorities. Likewise, should Kenya go through with its closure plans, many refugees will be displaced a second time to neighbouring countries or go into hiding, leaving the problem of protracted displacement unresolved.

In the past few decades, East African societies have shouldered an extraordinary responsibility by hosting millions of refugees. This deserves respect and commendation. Top refugee-hosting states like Kenya and Ethiopia undoubtedly need more funds and support from international donors, but the option of forced repatriation – or refoulement – should be out of the question. Last month, the African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) reiterated this in a communiqué, stating that – despite economic and security challenges – Kenya was to uphold its international legal obligations towards refugees.

In 2013, Kenya had already signed a Tripartite Agreement with the Government of Somalia and the UNHCR to expedite the voluntary (!) repatriation of Somali refugees. But, due to continuing militia activity, insecurity, and meagre livelihood opportunities inside Somalia, just over 13,000 refugees have returned home since December 2014. Many more remain hesitant and fear going back as Al-Shabaab stages regular offensives.

Kenya’s announcement to shut down Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps is more than a worrying déjà-vu. It echoes the xenophobic and anti-refugee trends in Europe and North America, exemplified by a deal between Turkey and the European Union on the forced return of refugees from Greece to Turkey. But, more importantly, Kenya’s drum-beating for refugee expulsion is motivated by national politics and a renewed bid for donor funding.

Firstly, Al-Shabaab is posing a tangible threat to Kenyans and Somalis alike, and the Westgate and Garissa attacks have demonstrated what the group is capable of. But, Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011, and subsequent merging with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), have had little positive effect in tackling this threat. Hence, the government’s refusal to review its failing Somalia strategy, and its disappointment with donors over the recent slashing of AMISOM funds, have likely contributed to a climate of escalation within government circles.

Secondly, Kenya awaits general elections in August 2017. By using anti-refugee rhetoric and strongman politics to ensnare voters in the upcoming presidential race, the Jubilee coalition is set to make use of an old political strategy: scapegoating. With refugees bearing the brunt of this latest political move, Kenya seems further than ever from tackling the real issues, namely domestic ethno-political divisions and historical grievances.

Despite the government’s strong determination that “hosting of refugees has to come to an end”, the logistics of closing the camps within just a few months are cast into serious doubt. On a press conference on 11 May – just five days after the closure announcement – Cabinet Secretary of the Interior, Joseph Ole Nkaissery, made clear that Kakuma refugee camp will in fact not be closed. Despite this zig-zagging on Kakuma, Nkaissery reasserted, however, that “the government is dead serious” about Dadaab’s removal. Meanwhile, some pressing issues remain, such as the processing of new refugee arrivals, granting access to the camps for media and researchers, and the fate of Kakuma’s long-awaited expansion into Kalobeyei.

Kenya’s ad hoc decision for mass repatriation of Somali refugees calls into question the future of the existing Tripartite Agreement. While it seems highly unlikely that Kenya will actually close Dadaab, it could instead settle for a diplomatic horse trade with the international community. This would include providing additional funds for Kenya’s humanitarian commitment and the speeding-up of refugee repatriation to southern Somalia, in exchange for leaving the camps untouched – at least for now. If this is the case, then we will know whether this latest round of camp closure talk is again just a sinister bluff.

 

 

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