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The future of the world's largest refugee camp
24 August 2015

Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp. It is also, according to Kenya, a hotbed of al-Shabaab activity, and a staging ground for terrorist attacks. As Kenya briefs the PSC on Dadaab’s future, it’s worth asking whether Dadaab itself is the problem, or merely a symptom of a deeper crisis.

It’s no secret that Dadaab refugee camp – the world’s largest – is a headache for Kenyan authorities, who have been advocating for it to be closed or removed over the last few years. Take this statement from the Kenyan government, made in November 2013, several weeks after the al-Shabaab attack on Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi: 'All the camps should be closed and the debate on whether or not it is appropriate has been passed by time,' said then-interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku.

Or this, from Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, in the wake of the horrific al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University which claimed 147 lives in April this year. 'We have asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate the refugees in three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves … The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa … We must secure this country at whatever cost.'

The three-month deadline to close Dadaab has been missed, and the camp remains open
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This three-month deadline has been missed and Dadaab remains open. However, this could be about to change. Kenya takes its campaign to do something about Dadaab to the African Union on 24 August as Kenyan officials make an extraordinary presentation to the Peace and Security Council, whose agenda agenda reads: 'Presentation to the PSC by Kenyan Officials on the Government’s efforts in fighting al-Shabaab and its plan of relocating the Dadaab Refugee Camp.'

A growing population

Dadaab refugee camp was established by UNHCR in 1991, as a reaction to violence and instability in Somalia. It was originally designed to host 90 000 people. Today, its population is an estimated 350 000, many of whom were either born in the camp or have lived there most of their lives. This number is still growing, albeit a lot more slowly: 3 719 new refugees were recorded in the most recent two week-long registration drive in July this year (Kenya only allows refugees to be registered in specific windows, so this represent several months’ worth of arrivals).

Kenya’s concerns with Dadaab are not difficult to discern. For one thing, the camp has begun to look very permanent, and, on the basis of its large population, it has become one of Kenya’s largest cities. More importantly, however, the Kenyan government views the camp as a hotbed for al-Shabaab militants, and a staging post for terrorist attacks on Kenya.

Serious efforts to close the camp began with talks in April between Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR (known as the Tripartite Commmission), who agreed to scale up assistance to refugees willing to return home. 116 people made up the first batch of returnees under this agreement, and they were airlifted from Dadaab to Mogadishu on 5 August 2015. Despite the ongoing insecurity in Somalia, UNHCR judges that there is appetite for voluntary repatriation, albeit very limited:

'Despite the fragile security environment situation in Somalia, refugees in Dadaab have responded to signs of increasing stability and started to return. Since December 2014, 3 078 Somali refugees have returned with UNHCR support. More still have returned spontaneously without receiving assistance from UNHCR,' said a UNHCR statement.

These numbers, however, represent the tip of the iceberg – and, taking new arrivals into account, the camp’s population is remaining more or less the same. This means that any feasible plan to close Dadaab in the near future will require forced repatriations, which are of dubious legality – especially if refugees are made to return to Somalia.

'That has a lot of legal implications. One is that once you move the refugees into Somalia, they are no longer refugees, they are internally displaced persons (IDPs). The whole range of laws and humanitarian responses that applied to refugees on the Kenyan side suddenly might not apply. It has implications on fundraising and on the willlingness of humanitarian actors to work on the Somali side of the border,' explained Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, in comments to the media earlier this year.

No easy fix

Therefore, as the PSC considers Kenya’s plans for Dadaab’s future, whatever they may be, it’s worth bearing a few things in mind.

Any feasible plan to close Dadaab will require forced repatriations
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First, Kenya is obligated under international law to provide refuge for persons fleeing from conflict, as per the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (both signed by Kenya). UNHCR has repeatedly warned that any unilateral closure of the camp, without adequate provision for the resettlement of its population, would violate these obligations. To its credit, Kenya has vowed to uphold its obligations: 'Kenya has been, and will continue, fulfilling its international obligations,' said President Uhuru Kenyatta in May, in the context of the debate over Dadaab.

Second, although the situation in Somalia is arguably improving, it remains unstable and dangerous. The government in Mogadishu is still not in control of most of the country, and many areas are still active conflict zones. Terrorist attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere are common. This means that no one in Somalia is in a position to guarantee the safety and security of returning refugees.

Finally, it’s worth considering the security implications of shutting down, relocating or downsizing a camp of Dadaab’s size. If there is indeed a link between Dadaab and al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya, as the government claims – and this claim is disputed by analysts – then it’s important to question whether closing Dadaab would really improve the security situation. Is Dadaab itself really the problem? Or is it just a symbol of deeper, underlying issues that a holistic counter-terrorism policy should address first?

There is no doubt that Dadaab’s situation is far from ideal. Dealing with it, however, raises a whole new set of complications. As Kenya brings the matter to the attention of PSC members, it will be hoping that the PSC sympathises with Kenya’s plight, endorses Kenya’s assessment of the security threat that Dadaab represents, and weighs in on the appropriate balance between security and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers (this would certainly strengthen Kenya’s hand when it comes to dealing with UNHCR and the Somali Federal Government). This issue of balancing security with legal rights is not limited to Kenya and Dadaab, of course – which means that if the PSC does pronounce on the issue, it has the potential to be an important, precedent-setting decision.

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