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Kenya’s Dadaab: How Not to Close a Refugee Camp

With the U.N. summit on refugees and migrants about to convene, Ben Rawlence, author of “City of Thorns,” who has spent five years visiting Dadaab, writes from the camp, explaining that the mass returns of refugees to Somalia are far from “voluntary” in reality.

Written by Ben Rawlence Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Somali refugees seen at Hagadera Camp outside Dadaab, Kenya. The world’s largest refugee camp faces pressure to close after a quarter century, with many refugees currently being sent back as part of a “voluntary” repatriation process. AP/Jerome Delay, File

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – These days, my phone rings in the early hours of every morning. It is some of the many residents of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, calling to tell me that they don’t want to go back to Somalia. They say there is war in Somalia, there are no schools, no hospitals. They are afraid. The Kenyan government has said they must leave by November or else, security officials announced in a public meeting in the camp, the government will “come for them.”

I tell them not to worry, that they can stay in the camp and no one will force them to go back. But they don’t believe me. Kenya has rounded up and returned refugees before. And the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has told them nothing to the contrary.

“And even if we stay, how will we survive?” they ask. For nearly two years the World Food Program (WFP) has cut the food rations on which people in the camp survive by a third. Meanwhile, in Kenya’s other huge refugee city, Kakuma, the already meager rations (just enough to keep an adult alive for a month) are at maximum capacity. It is commonly believed in Dadaab that this blatant discrimination is a plot to starve them into returning.

It is no surprise then that, panicked and hungry, nearly 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have signed up for a “voluntary” repatriation process run by the U.N. UNHCR is now overwhelmed with refugees desperate for the $400 and three months of food that are currently on offer for those who return. There have been demonstrations in the camp because of the returns not happening fast enough. People are starving. No one knows how bad the malnutrition is because WFP canceled a planned malnutrition survey after the announcement of the camp’s closure.

Amid the confusion and fear, shops are closing, agencies are not hiring refugee staff, already threadbare budgets are being cut, hospitals are uncertain how many medical supplies to order and children are playing truant from school. Alternative income streams such as the few shillings that people gain from employment or trade are drying up, sharpening the economic gloom and accelerating the panic.

In the Kenyan government’s view, the repatriation of 29,000 people so far is evidence of success. But Kenya does not count the numbers of those who decided to come back to Dadaab, upon finding Somalia still at war and quickly discovering the terrible conditions in the overstretched Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps inside Somalia. But such people will not be allowed to register as refugees again and hence will not appear in any statistics.

This evident tragedy in contravention of national and international legal safeguards against forced return is being facilitated by UNHCR, terrorized by Kenya into overlooking its own mandate. In November 2013, Kenya, UNHCR and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement on voluntary returns even though Somalia was still at war. The agreement diluted the U.N.’s own rules for the minimum acceptable conditions for repatriation, identifying certain “safe zones” instead. With this key concession under its belt, the Kenyan government set about announcing arbitrary timelines for the closure of the camp, telling refugees “it is time” to go home, and insisting that Somalia is now safe, without any reference to the facts on the ground or the law concerning voluntary return.

Meanwhile, the war raged on and signs of drought loom once again.

Having committed to managing the repatriation process, UNHCR found itself overwhelmed by the number of refugees eager to return to Somalia. It bussed 400 a day into Somalia until, earlier this month, officials of the Somali state of Jubaland that lies across the border called a halt. They cited overcrowding and horrible conditions in the IDP camps in Kismayo as the reason to stop taking in more returnees.

It is impossible to call what is happening “voluntary” by any definition of the word. Yet both Kenya and UNHCR persist in doing so. This is a betrayal of the refugees and a dangerous precedent. Now, other countries in the region want their own tripartite agreement. Kenya has shown how to push UNHCR into a corner and close a refugee camp in the absence of any of the normal criteria for doing so. Europe and the United States, having abrogated any moral high ground on protecting refugees, are easily shamed by Kenya into pledging money toward the returns process, lending weight and momentum to the farce.

The world should be expanding asylum space and championing innovative solutions for long-term refugee populations instead of rebranding “war” as “peace” and “refoulement” as “voluntary repatriation.” There can be no voluntary return in the face of conflict, deadlines, ration cuts and quotas. At the upcoming U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) and the various refugee-related side events, donors should call a halt to the current scandal of coerced returns in Dadaab.

Together with WFP, they (the donors) should commit to fully funding food rations for all refugees, pending other solutions. It is inhumane to keep people in a camp and not feed them. Diplomatic discussions should focus on the big picture – how to harness the energy and creativity of refugee populations and use them to leverage international financing for development of host communities and refugees alike. Instead the current, shameful efforts weasel us out of our collective moral and legal obligation to help and protect the displaced.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.


“The Road to UNGA” explores the most pertinent conversations that ought to happen ahead of the first ever U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants that will take place on September 19–20 in New York.

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