What Future Awaits Refugees in Kenya?

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Refugee Shelters in the Dadaab camp, norther Kenya:SOURCE-DFID:Peter Lewis
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On March 23, the Kenyan government gave the UN’s refugee agency a two-week-long ultimatum to prepare a plan to close two refugee camps, Kakuma and Dadaab. The main reason for ordering the closure was the president’s concern about the safety of Kenyans as the huge camps have been deemed a ‘breeding ground for terrorists’ – though this, as with so many statements about the camps, is hotly contested.

The roadmap the UN suggested after the deadline passed foresaw a gradual closure that would stretch to December 31 next year. That would give the organisation enough time to find an alternative to camps, while the refugees remained protected and had access to humanitarian aid. Sadly, however, the proposal was rejected by the Kenyan government, which called for a ‘reasonable timeline’ and a definite date for the camps’ closure.

Soon after, on April 8, Kenya’s high court temporarily suspended the government’s move to shut down the camps, giving the UN more time to find a solution on how to relocate the refugees without putting their safety at risk. Despite the suspension, however, the future of refugees in Kenya remains uncertain.

Camps considered home by refugees

Dadaab and Kakuma camps have a population of 218,873 and 196,666 refugees respectively, which makes them some of the largest refugee camps in the world. For many people living there, life in a refugee camp is all they know.

Dadaab camp was set up in 1991 when the civil war broke out in Somalia and thousands of Somalis fled their country seeking shelter in Kenya. Over the last three decades, families would start new lives there. They would send their kids to some of the thirty-five primary and six secondary schools operating in the camp and would start their own small businesses within the camp’s borders. Dadaab’s refugee community is vibrant and people living there have developed their own culture. The imminent closure of the camp means that they will have to start from scratch again.

Kakuma camp was established in 1992 when thousands of boys called ‘lost boys of Sudan’ arrived in Kenya after having been displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Since then, the camp has developed so much it now has its own market hosting more than a thousand refugee-run businesses. In Kakuma, refugees work on developing their professional skills and their services are of benefit not only to the camp’s inhabitants but also to their host community. Many of the Kakuma’s refugees contribute to the country’s economy, which shows the positive aspect of refugee integration. The completion of the government’s plan will mean taking a step back and depriving the refugees of the opportunities and resources they might not find anywhere else. 

Refugees worried about what comes next

Even though the decision about the camps’ closure has been postponed, this time Kenya is determined to finalise the process. Hence, many refugees dread being sent back to their home countries, where armed conflicts are still ongoing. In fact, repatriation is the only option that the Kenyan government suggests. As the majority of refugees in the camps, particularly in Dadaab, are of Somali origin, they will have to go back to Somalia where critical infrastructure has collapsed and vast territories are controlled by a terrorist organisation, al-Shabaab. Moreover, if sent back to Somalia, the refugees will have no homes and no jobs. Hence, going ahead with the camps’ closure will mean pushing thousands into extreme poverty and homelessness.

The UN suggested that a minor number of refugees who are not able to go back to their home countries could be resettled within the Kenyan borders. These individuals, however, could face discrimination and hostility from the rest of the society as a result of the anti-refugee narrative that the Kenyan government has been putting forward recently. The recurrent references to the camps and refugees as security threats, which have been prevalent in the Kenyan media, could lead to the refugee integration proving challenging.

It is worth noticing that the repatriation of refugees will have negative consequences not only for the refugees but also for the camps’ host communities. Their residents and refugees trade together and exchange services and products in the camps and in the nearby cities. Therefore, the camps’ closure will be detrimental to the host communities’ economies.

Playing politics with people’s lives

Refugees are not ready to leave everything behind and yet again move to places where their future and safety are uncertain. Any decision about what will happen next should be made in consultation with the refugees as it is their well-being that is at stake. Over the last thirty years that the camps have been operating, many refugees became self-reliant, active members of Kenyan society. Sending them back to war zones and depriving them of everything they have worked so hard for is indisputably inhumane.

The Kenyan government, however, seems indifferent to the possibility of creating a human disaster of epic proportions. Saving the refugees in Kenya is a race against time, and the next few weeks will show whether a considerate solution can be found.

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration News. This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world and helps people get immigration advice.

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