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What’s Next for Dadaab: Refugees Face an Impossible Choice

Kenya has pushed its deadline to shut down the world’s largest refugee complex into 2017, but conditions in Dadaab are deteriorating fast. Mark Yarnell from Refugees International says its residents face either starvation or returning to a conflict zone.

Written by Mark Yarnell Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Somali refugees walk on the perimeter of Dadaab, a complex of refugee camps in Kenya, 60 miles from the Somali border. AP/Jerome Delay

The Kenyan government’s deadline to close Dadaab has come and gone. For the 275,000 refugees who still call this complex of camps home, this is welcome news.

Unfortunately, the reprieve is only temporary. Kenya now aims to to close Dadaab by the end of June 2017. With national elections to follow in August, it is less likely that this new deadline will pass without some action being taken.

Life for the refugees who remain in Dadaab is far from easy. A funding shortage has forced the Word Food Program (WFP) to cut food rations for refugees in Kenya beginning this month. A prolonged drought across the border in Somalia, combined with ongoing insecurity, is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis there.

Refugees in Dadaab, most of whom are Somali, face an impossible choice: stay in Dadaab where the future is uncertain and conditions are deteriorating or return to Somalia to face insecurity and hunger.

This was a year of summits and high-level meetings aimed at improving the global response to displacement crises. But as the year draws to a close, the current predicament for Somali refugees in Kenya represents a clear failure of those efforts.

In September, I traveled to Kenya and Somalia to assess the impact and implications of the Kenyan government’s plans to close Dadaab, as well as to examine the role of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in facilitating refugee returns to Somalia. The U.N. maintains that the returns are voluntary, that refugees have a choice. But so long as a deadline for camp closure exists with no other option for refugees but to return to Somalia, the logic does not square.

In Dadaab, nearly every refugee we interviewed told us they were fearful about what might happen to them if they did not sign up for the UNHCR return program, which includes $200 upon departure from Dadaab and $200 upon arrival in Somalia, plus a six-month subsidy per household.

“Everybody wants to take the money before being kicked out,” one refugee told us. “Maybe the government will beat us or set the camp on fire,” another said. A number of refugees spoke about threatening messages from Kenyan government officials that aired on the local radio station – messages such as, “We are going to show you the way to go back if you don’t go on your own.”

We met one woman as she waited outside a UNHCR return help desk, where refugees can sign up for the repatriation program. I asked for her thoughts on the voluntariness of the program. “This is about fear. It’s not about choice,” she said emphatically.

Now, in addition to pressure from the Kenyan government to leave, refugees who stay in Dadaab may not have enough to eat. Starting this month, the WFP cut monthly food rations in half for all refugees in Kenya through at least April unless it receives $13.7 million from donor governments. The already high malnutrition rates in the camps are now expected to rise. Donor governments and international organizations cannot force Kenya to withdraw its plans to close Dadaab, but so long as the complex is open, donors and aid agencies have a responsibility to ensure that services for refugees there are as robust as possible.

Instead, by cutting food, the international community, in addition to causing immediate harm, is reinforcing the Kenyan government’s message that Somali refugees are not welcome.

The situation inside Somalia itself is not hopeful. Poor rains caused major food shortages during the most recent harvest, and according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the current rainy season has been 50 to 70 percent below average thus far. More than 5 million Somalis – about 40 percent of the population – are in need of food aid, and that number is expected to rise in the coming months unless there is an immediate surge in humanitarian assistance. As the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq, stated: “The drought situation is extremely worrying and could deteriorate rapidly if we don’t act now. We are running against time.”

Despite the push to return refugees, fighting inside Somalia continues to force civilians to flee their homes on a daily basis. It also hinders the ability of aid workers to access people in need, thus compounding the impact of the drought. Recently, fighting between forces loyal to the semi-autonomous regions of Galmudug and Puntland displaced over 75,000 people. And with presidential elections scheduled for the end of the year, the situation throughout the entire country is tense.

The refugees being slowly starved out of Dadaab are expected to return to the very conditions that caused them to flee in the first place. Kenya deserves to be criticized harshly for threatening to shutter the camps and push refugees out. But they are not the only ones at fault.

This was a year of high-level consultations – among governments, U.N. leaders and civil society representatives – that sought to broaden responsibility-sharing for refugee crises and improve the way that humanitarian aid is delivered. However, lofty commitments and declarations mean little if they do not translate to tangible improvements for people on the ground. Notably, these events included the World Humanitarian Summit, the U.N.’s high-level plenary on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants and U.S. President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.

And what has this meant for Somali refugees? Options for movement to third countries through resettlement or through other legal pathways remain improbable. Discussion about local integration for Somali refugees in Kenya is off the table. And conditions inside Dadaab are deteriorating by the day while a deadline for the camp’s closure looms on the horizon. This failure is on all of us.

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

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