Kenya's threat to close a refugee camp is a cry for help

Dadaab houses more than 320 000 Somalis, but now the host wants to return them to a place many of them do not know.


Kenya shocked everyone when it announced that it is closing the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab.

Citing economic, security and environmental reasons, Kenya’s Joseph Nkaissery, head of the ministry of interior, declared that it intended to cease hosting the more than 320 000 Somali refugees living there. The decision was internationally criticised.

Dadaab was established 25 years ago and hosts a generation of refugees who have not known anything else and consider Kenya “home”.

In 1991 the Kenyan government opened the camp, designed for 90 000 refugees, as a temporary solution to the civil war across the border.

But to repatriate all the Somalis living in Dadaab would be a gargantuan task. The difficulty is not only where to “rehome” them, but also that many do not even know Somalia. There is also concern over their safety as a result of ongoing insecurity in Somalia; their wellbeing cannot be guaranteed.

A tripartite agreement adopted in November 2013 between the Kenyan and Somali governments and the United Nations Refugee Agency outlined how repatriation should take place. The process would, according to the agreement, “require a holistic and community-based approach that would improve absorption capacity and enhance access to basic services and self-reliance for returnees”.

Under the agreement the Kenyan and the Somali governments were required to ensure that:

  •  Repatriation should be voluntary;
  •  Refugees should relocate to where they choose in Somalia; and,
  •  Return should take place in “safety and dignity”.

  In practice, these conditions cannot currently be met. There are claims that the repatriation isn’t voluntary, that refugees willing to go to Somalia are being offered $150 cash as a “return grant” and $600 a family as a “reinstallation grant”.

Once back in Somalia, the initial hurdles will lie in providing refugees with the basics — such as food and water. These would be followed by the need to assist them to get into the job market and provide healthcare and education.

But not even the basics can be met. This was recently illustrated when authorities in Southern Somalia blocked the return of refugees from Kenya, citing a lack of humanitarian assistance.

The question is: What options does Kenya have?

One possibility could have been the local integration of refugees. But Kenyan authorities ruled this out.

Another would have been to stem the flow of refugees into Kenya by improving Somalia’s security situation. Kenya has made attempts to do this with a costly military endeavour since 2011. This was when it announced a major military offensive against the Somali militant group Al-Shabab. That year, Kenya spent 1.9% of its gross domestic product buying arms.

Kenya has been left to deal with an immense refugee responsibility alone. This has led to antagonism in Kenya towards Somali refugees.

Maintaining a large refugee population when the country is struggling to deal with its own problems is a big ask. Kenya still needs to address issues of poverty, inequality, governance, low investment and low productivity.

Many Kenyans see the refugees as a demand on the country’s resources, particularly as the inflow from Somalia consists mostly of poor and unskilled people. Kenyans living near the refugees believe that they received more help than the local population.

At the end of last year Kenya hosted 615 112 people for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Comparing these numbers with data from Europe, where the inflow of refugees is regarded as a crisis, provides some perspective. In 2015 Italy, for example, hosted 118 047 refugees and 60 156 asylum-seekers.

Domestic intolerance in Kenya has also been driven by perceived threats to the country’s security. There have been claims that refugee camps had become breeding grounds for Al-Shabab cells. This resulted in crackdowns involving plans to deport all undocumented Somalis.

Last year Al-Shabab attacked Kenya’s Garissa University, resulting in the deaths of 147 students and sparking repeated calls for refugee repatriation.

A major disappointment for Kenya was the outcome of the 2015 donor conference held in Brussels. It was calculated that a plan for the repatriation of Somalis and the rebuilding of their country would cost US $500-million. Donors guaranteed only $105-million.

Kenya’s move to repatriate Somalis from Dadaab is a way to let the rest of the world know that it can no longer manage this plight on its own.

Having abandoned Kenya in its efforts to host the refugees, hopefully the international community will now hear the country’s desperate cry.

  This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on


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