Kenya’s Push to Close World’s Largest Refugee Camp Fuels a Sense of Displacement

As Western allies question plan, Dabaab’s largely Somali residents, some of whom have never lived anywhere else, worry about where they might go

  Brownkey Abdullahi was born here in the world’s largest refugee camp 23 years ago and has never lived anywhere else. Now the Kenyan government has distressed its Western allies by renewing a push to close it, throwing residents’ lives into confusion and uncertainty.

“I’m somebody who doesn’t know where to move if they tell me to move from here,” she said on Tuesday by telephone from Dadaab, where she was born to Somali parents.

The government said last week that it had disbanded its department of refugee affairs, the official liaison to the Dadaab camp, the United Nations-run complex that houses some 350,000 people around 60 miles west of the Kenyan-Somali border. The department appeared to stop operating immediately.

At top, an aerial view of the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, taken on March 15. The camp, now 25 years old, is the world’s largest refugee settlement. Above, women walk past a tailor in a commercial neighborhood of the Dadaab camp.
 women walk past a tailor in a commercial neighborhood of the Dadaab camp.

The move to dissolve the department was necessary, the government said, to speed up the closing of Dadaab and Kakuma, a smaller camp housing mainly South Sudanese refugees. Kenyan officials say Dadaab in particular has become a haven for al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that is fighting the Somali government and has carried out major attacks in Kenya.

Interior Ministry spokesman  Mwenda Njoka  said Kenya also was moving to shut the camps because of what the government describes as years of international neglect even as the number of refugees in the East African nation swelled to more than 600,000.

“We haven’t gotten the kind of support that we were expecting, or that the rest of the world promised,” Mr. Njoka said. He suggested urging other countries in the region to assume more of the burden and host some of the Somali, South Sudanese and other refugees in Kenya. “Right now, the government has decided there’s a need to move with speed, with or without the support of the rest of the world.”

For Ms. Abdullahi and other refugees, the problem is that there may be nowhere for them to go if Dadaab and Kakuma close.

Somalia is still mired in violence, Kenya won’t nationalize the refugees on its soil and there are few other countries willing to take them, amid the migrant crisis already besetting Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

The U.N. has urged the Kenyan government to reconsider its steps to close the camps, saying refugees’ safety “has hinged on Kenya’s generosity and its willingness to be a leading beacon in the region for international protection.”

Whether Kenya will follow through on its threats to close the camps is unclear. It has made similar pronouncements before, leading some observers to claim the latest steps are a ploy for more humanitarian aid and financial support for its troops deployed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping force.

“It is a bid for attention and money,” said Ben Rawlence, author of a book on Dadaab published this year. “This is about using the refugees as a bargaining tool.”

The sudden closure of the refugee-affairs department has disrupted operations at the camps. The registration of new refugees and the issuing of passes for refugees to travel outside the camp—tasks the department oversees—have been halted.

A weekly refugee-repatriation flight to Somalia from Dadaab has been suspended. At Kakuma, about 2,000 newly arrived South Sudanese refugees were waiting to be registered, with more expected to arrive at the camp soon, Conor Phillips, head of the Kenya office of the International Rescue Committee, said on Tuesday.

Doctors working in the camps have been unable to get government permission to send patients to Kenyan hospitals for emergency medical care.

A part of Dadaab housing for recently arrived Somali refugees.
A part of Dadaab housing for recently arrived Somali refugees.

One refugee in a coma died over the weekend after no one in the Kenyan government would authorize her flight to Nairobi for treatment, Abbas Gullet, head of the Kenyan Red Cross said on Tuesday. Doctors Without Borders said it has been unable to transfer another four patients in need of emergency care.

Established in 1991, Dadaab is far from a stereotypical refugee camp of plastic sheeting and open wood fires. It is a teeming city with its own schools, restaurants, hair salons and computer-game arcades.

Ms. Abdullahi is doing well by camp standards—she has a degree from a Kenyan university earned via a satellite program run inside the camp and has started a blog about women’s rights. She has a new smartphone sent to her by a friend who was resettled abroad.

Some young men and women in Dadaab have received permission to attend school in Nairobi or—for a lucky few—in Canada and elsewhere. But unless they manage to get work permits or citizenship abroad, they are required to return to the camp, where despite their education and training, they are economically marginalized and eligible only for jobs with token pay of about $50 a month.

A man tries to control an unruly camel, at top, at a livestock market in the Dadaab. Maalin Hassan, a former farmer from Dinsor, Somalia, stands outside his shelter in the camp, above.
A man tries to control an unruly camel, at top, at a livestock market in the Dadaab. Maalin Hassan, a former farmer from Dinsor, Somalia, stands outside his shelter in the camp, above.

Most of the people of Dadaab don’t consider repatriation a viable option now. Some who have opted for one of the free flights to Somalia to test out life there have already returned to the camp, saying al-Shabaab had tried forcefully to recruit them, said Laetitia Bader, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

On Tuesday, Ms. Abdullahi said the prospect of Dadaab’s closure is the talk of the camp. She said that as much as she wants to leave, her current situation is better than having to start again in a new camp with nothing.

The latest update on her resettlement application was six years ago. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says it manages to resettle only about 2,000 refugees from Kenya each year.

“They told me be patient, we are going to call you,” she said. “But I’ve been patient for the last six years.”

Brownkey Abdullahi, a 23-year-old Somali refugee, stands outside her home. She has lived her entire life in the Dadaab.
Brownkey Abdullahi, a 23-year-old Somali refugee, stands outside her home. She has lived her entire life in the Dadaab.
Source: http://www.wsj.com