Closing Dadaab: No African refugee in an African country
By Rev. CANON FRANCIS OMONDI
Might the European Union’s appalling rejection of refugees influenced Kenya’s current decision to close down the Dadaab refugee camp?
Unlike other earlier attempts to close the 25-years old camp, it seems Kenya has been unfettered to act without regard of humanitarian codes nor pressure of being in breach of international law and conventions.
The EU has shown how.
Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, recently condemned the EU’s handling of the ongoing refugee crisis, terming it “miserable”, and Central European countries’ position as “narrow-minded selfishness.”
That the Dadaab camp had lost its ‘humanitarian character’, cannot be gainsaid.
According to the refugees, the drastic reduction of food ration made life anything but humane.
To the government, however, it’s already a breeding ground for terrorism.
Even though I support the camp’s closure, I find the government’s postulated reason suspect.
The suggestion to forcefully repatriate 350,000 Somalis back across the border because of suspicion that there are active terror groups in the camp, frightens me.
The prospect is cruel, and probability of failure quite high.
Not about finances?
Financial reports reveal that the Dadaab refugee camp has been perennially on life support since 2012.
There was a $25 million funding shortfall in 2012, and the World Food Programme has cut food rations twice since 2013.
The food cuts were of great concern to the refugees: “For some of us who do not get any remittances from relatives abroad, it is tough to raise children, even with the full monthly ration. I wonder how tough it will be with cuts,” said Hussein Farah, a father of 10 in Dagahaley, a camp within wider Dadaab.
Refugees read mischief in the food cuts.
It led to near riots in the camps in 2014.
Mr. Raouf Mazou, the then United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative in Kenya, in managing the situation denied that it was a scheme to repatriate refugees.
“We call for calm in camps. The reduction of food rations is purely as a result of funding constraints and should not in any way be linked to the planned pilot project that will support refugees spontaneously
returning to Somalia,” he was quoted as saying.
The UN agency had declared a shortfall of US$ 38 million towards ensuring provision of regular rations for the refugees in 2014.
Unfortunately, this want has persisted.
It vastly contrasts with the Syrian situation, where the EU reached financial agreements with key transit countries to control migrant flows with US$ 3.3 billion to Turkey alone.
Complaints about this preferential funding arrangement was aptly expressed in sentiments by Mr. Karanja Kibicho, Principal Secretary at Kenya’s Ministry for the Interior, when he noted that the international community is getting away with it “on the cheap” in Kenya.
In an interview with Reuters, Kenya’s Deputy President Hon. William Ruto also lamented that the international community had failed Somalia, which is still struggling to recover from the anarchy of the 1990s, arguing that Kenya had spent $7 billion on Dadaab over the past quarter of a century.
“Kenya feels incredibly frustrated by its refugee burden,” noted Rashid Abdi, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
But the government denies that its decision is financially motivated.
To pin the closure on any other reason but funding is improbable.
The argument that the closure is terror-induced has been effectively touted.
Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdellatif Aboulatta, while leading a UN delegation to meet the Kenyan authorities in an attempt to influence a change in position, amplified it when he said: “It is not about finance. Yes of course there is some financial problem, of course, but it is also about terrorism. There might be a link to some radicalization inside these camps and we understand it, of course, again the challenge of terrorism is real and it is important to take it into consideration.”
This assertion affirmed the elaboration by Hon. Ruto “of radicalization by extremist elements in the refugee camps especially of the young people, idle young people in the refugee camps”, as the main reason for its closure and forceful repatriation.
But this rationale is lame.
Who cannot see that forcing refugees back into Somali would only amplify radicalization?
It will be a huge error to ignore the protests of the Somalia government, which through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that any move to close Dadaab forcefully would only hurt the refugees and possibly drive more people into militancy.
“Expelling vulnerable Somali refugees at a time Somalia is making internationally recognized progress towards stability and institution building, will only increase the risk of insecurity in the region,” the ministry said.
“This decision will negatively affect the majority of Somali refugees…and will make the threat of terrorism worse, not better,” it added.
Expelling refugees will, within Kenya, reinforce the narrative of a long-standing “strong anti-Somali sentiment” in Kenya, exhibited in a less than sympathetic government, with a tendency to launch impulsive crackdowns against the Somali community.
And scapegoating terror attacks on the refugees will be counterproductive.
It would certainly inflame the embers of radicalization, whose drivers are too complex and multiple.
Building our security policy on such faulty premises is a reckless act of chasing shadows while missing the real threat to our security.
Some of recent studies around terrorism in Kenya debunk the Kenyan government’s claim about refugees.
I found these two extremely instructive: “Tangled ties: Al-Shabaab and the changing politics of violence in Kenya”, published by the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University in collaboration with Centre for human Rights and Policy Studies and the International Crisis Group’s Update briefing No. 102 of 25 September 2014.
The authors convincingly provided fresh analysis into the intersection between Al-Shabaab with violence dynamics in Kenya and the politics.
Although the reasons for current terror related activities in Kenya are complex, one most interesting finding of these researchers was tracing it to the government’s security responses.
In forceful repatriation, Kenya risks inviting more terror attacks on her citizens.
Care, therefore, needs to be taken in dealing with the refugees with more options explored if the government follow through with its plans to close the camp.
Repatriation of refugees: What are the conditions of a just return process?
Perhaps Kenya is riding on the crest of change dealing with long term refugees.
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on repatriation, indicative of a definitive shift in the structure of the international refugee system.
Megan Bradley in Refugee Repatriation: Justice, Responsibility and Redress, explains this change by refuting the depiction of refugees as stateless, right-less ‘scum of the earth’, and that it no longer so clearly reflects or suggests avenues for resolving the challenges faced by the majority of the world’s refugees.
For millions of refugees, repatriation to their countries of origin is no longer an option but an imperative, the only alternative to the limbo of protracted displacement.
Yet this can be disastrous if not well planned, as the Afghanistan case is instructive.
Here, the UN had seen the repatriation of some 5 million refugees since 2002.
This has not worked.
Reflecting on the failure to provide returnees with the support essential to make repatriation a
sustainable contribution to peace, the head of the UNHCR mission in Afghanistan characterized the agency’s approach to return as ‘a big mistake, the biggest mistake UNHCR ever made.’
Any success of return operations depends on the ability of governments and non-state actors to confront and respond to the questions of justice the repatriation process puts front and centre, from the resolution of land disputes to accountability for the atrocities and inequalities that fuel forced migration.
Somali refugees in Kenyan and Ethiopian camps fled from the south and central regions.
According to Human Rights Watch, even though the security landscape in the area has been changing rapidly since the beginning of the year, there is no evidence yet of a significant improvement in the generally poor human rights situation for the local population.
The three, Afmadow in Lower Juba, Baidoa in Bay and Belet Xaawo in Gedo, were recently captured from Al-Shabab, but have again been recaptured from the Federal Somali government and the African Union [AU] forces.
These regions host significant populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs), 31,000 in Lower Juba, 40,000 in Baidoa and 77,000 in Gedo, and are the areas of origin of a significant number of refugees.
More than 200,000 are from Lower Juba, including more than 48,000 from Afmadow, 80,000 from Baidoa, 124,000 from Gedo.
In the three locations, like most of south-central Somalia, public infrastructure and basic social services are very limited and, when available, are frequently of unsatisfactory quality.
Critically though, a majority of refugees in camps assess that the reasons that led to their displacement still prevail, and thus would not envision returning until conditions improve.
Observers have cautioned that premature and forced return movements can overwhelm and undercut ‘fragile institutions’ in countries struggling to emerge from conflict, exposing returnees to unnecessary and unacceptable risks, and ultimately setting back peace processes by potentially reigniting conflict and forced migration flows.
These risks are particularly pronounced in cases of massive return movements.
On a hopeful note, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005 observed: “The return of refugees and internally displaced persons is a major part of any post-conflict scenario. And it is far more than just a logistical operation. Indeed, it is often a critical factor in sustaining a peace process and in revitalizing economic activity.”
Just Return to Somalia: Who is obliged to ensure these conditions are met?
Reflected in UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s influential 1992 report An Agenda for Peace, is the conviction which argued that “Peacemaking and peace-keeping operations, to be truly successful,
must come to include comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures which will tend to consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well-being among people. Through agreements ending civil strife, these may include disarming the previously warring parties and the restoration of order . . .[and] repatriating refugees.”
The principle reason for retaining Kenyan troops in Somalia was to secure the country build its infrastructure to allow peaceful settlement for Somalis and peace within Kenyan borders.
This was attested to by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s words in Eldoret, during the memorial service of the Kenyan fallen soldiers early this, a testament to the dangers in Somalia.
Kenyatta Rejected calls to pull out Kenya Defence forces saying: “They [those calling for a withdrawal] have forgotten that the enemy has made it clear he will follow us home. And they have forgotten that, as good neighbors, we cannot leave the people of Somalia to the tender mercies of murderous terrorists.”
Why, then, would we send refugees into active conflict, where our military forces are also at risk?
Insisting on repatriation without adequate and clear resettlement plan worries.
Without alternative camps inside Somalia nor ready recipient communities will make this project a bridge to nowhere.
According to Mr. Abdi, “It remains a plan, no ground has been broken.”
Mr. Kibicho, on the other hand, claims 10,000 hectares has been procured outside the Somali town of Baidoa for exactly that purpose.
Again, Abdi contends that a more likely location is Ras Kamboni – a town much closer to the Kenyan border.
With this kind of unpreparedness, refugees will stream right back as soon as they are sent into Somalia.
The weakness of border controls and fluid population indistinguishable from the local community in Kenya’s northeast will make it hard to stop their return.
The starling return program by Ethiopia should be instructive.
Here, the UNHCR was quite successful in its repatriation policy.
It brought on board both the Ethiopian and Somaliland authorities as well as the refugees themselves.
Even though the process was considered far too slow, it should have been recognized that the security situation on the Somaliland side was not really conducive to such a complex operation until the beginning of 1997, which is exactly when the programme finally started.
Even though legal basis for the repatriation programme required a Tripartite Agreement (among UNHCR, the country of origin and the country of asylum), this was not possible because of Somaliland’s
Consequently, separate bilateral agreements were signed between UNHCR and the Ethiopian government on the one hand, and between UNHCR and the Somaliland authorities on the other.
The refugees’ drive for return was great.
An information campaign and a fact-finding mission by refugee elders to verify conditions in the areas of origin was initiated.
Once the UNHCR Sub-Office in Jijiga collected enough expressions of interest through signed Voluntary Repatriation Departure Forms (VRDF) in a camp, it would send a master list to UNHCR Hargeisa containing names, VRDF number and -–most importantly – clan and sub-clan details.
UNHCR Hargeisa then submitted the master list to the Ministry of Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (MRRR) for clearance.
The clearance was invariably carried out on the basis of the stated clan or sub-clan membership, rather than on the basis of names, since there was no national census and names were largely irrelevant since
many, maybe most, refugees had changed their names when seeking asylum.
The clans and sub-clans considered by MRRR as qualifying automatically for Somaliland citizenship were: Isaq (all sub-clans), Gadabursi (all sub-clans), Issa (all sub-clans), Dulbahante and Warsangeli/Harti/Darod, Gaboye, Tumal, Yiber.
Since January 2014, most of those who went back to Somalia have returned.
Repatriation was initially limited to three pilot areas in the south, but has since been extended to nine where there are pockets of stability.
These are areas where the local authorities are open to return and are willing to facilitate.
The refugees, however, have been very reluctant to embrace the return programme, for there is a whole generation of refugees who have known nothing else.
They are acutely aware of the insecurity across the border in Somalia and the lack of opportunities there.
So, however unwelcoming, Kenya is some kind of home.
Considering that Kenya’s repatriation programme has had poor outcomes, it’s puzzling that we are doubling down this path.
Path to citizenship?
We are not short of options.
The Somali refugees are our neighbours.
We must find an enlightened and generous policy towards refugees.
Tanzanian examples rebuke us.
This year, the Tanzania government completed their pledge to give citizenship to 250,000 Burundian refugees, first made in 2014.
Thus, it honoured the immortal words of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, founding president of Tanzania: “No African should be a refugee in another African country.”
It took hard work and great planning.
The adoption of Tanzania Comprehensive Solutions Strategy (TANCOSS) in 2007, was a partnership with
the Burundian government and UNHCR that outlined a plan for a durable solution for Burundian refugees who had been in Tanzania since 1972.
The TANCOSS plan was built on three pillars: voluntary repatriation to Burundi, processing of citizenship applications for those who opted for naturalization in Tanzania, and relocation of the naturalized refugees from the refugee settlements to other regions of Tanzania.
79% of refugees opted for Tanzanian citizenship while 21% opted for repatriation, and duly returned to Burundi.
The relocation plan was subsequently suspended, however, with naturalized refugees permitted to choose if they wish to be relocated or remain in the areas of the settlements.
According to Forced Migration Review of May 2016, Amilia Kuch, a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, rightly analyzed the thought of the architects of this plan: “The close affinity of the groups living in the area of Burundi and western Tanzania and their historical mobility across what is now the border were important preconditions for local integration of refugees.”
The refugees and the many Tanzanians found mutual affinity, making living together possible due to ethnic, religious and linguistic similarities.
Apart from continued violence and active military activities inside Somalia, we have similar dynamics in the groups on this border.
The Kenyan government’s refusal to consider an assimilation policy and drop its encampment approach means there has been no long-term strategy to improve livelihoods.
The reluctance is cognizant of the pressure such movement of population would exert on the country’s infrastructure and economy.
Tanzania’s policy of refugee protection is founded on commitment to Pan-African ideals and the opportunities that refugees provided for attracting resources for the development of remote and under-populated regions of the country.
As is evident in the nature of the rural refugee settlements in which access to land was provided, what became known as the Old Settlements turned out to be a success in terms of agricultural production and trade.
To a certain extent, the design of the policy was only viable because the refugees had land, becoming
self-sufficient and indeed contributing greatly to the local economy.
Alternatively, Kenya should emulate Uganda’s approach, where refugees are allowed access to means of production and work and contribute to the local economy.
A pilot project on this basis has been tried at Kenya’s other big refugee camp of Kakuma.
Call to act on behalf of refugees
I appeal to our moral conscience.
Forcefully repatriating refugees back to Somalia is immoral.
Kenyans and above all its religious leaders must demand immediate change of
The approach and policy employed should not hurt refugees nor endanger our nation.
We have a moral obligation to our neighbours, the refugees, unfortunate and needing our protection.
In 2005, the UN declared that all States will protect citizens in against ethnic cleansing and minorities in their jurisdiction.
This responsibility to protect is not necessarily about military intervention.
We can help manage crises before they mutate into violent conflicts.
Our world has changed and as part of the international community, we should adopt changes and reflect this in how we relate in the world.
Globalization has ended the ability of countries to insulate themselves against the world.
It is not the responsibility of the government alone; we all have a duty to protect, particularly refugees.
As Religious leaders, we can no longer say we did not know.
The plight of refugees is our responsibility.
When our government make wrong decisions in our name, we need to step in.
Alex Rankin in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Modern Martyr: Taking a Stand Against the State Gone Mad, helpfully observed that Bonhoeffer displayed his inner drive of leadership by calling for the Church to
fight the political injustices of the Third Reich in three ways.
First, to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; second to help the victims of injustice whether they were Church members or not.
Third, Bonhoeffer called upon the Church to “fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the
machinery of injustice.
We must make this principle – ‘the need to protect’ – a reality and demand for a radical shift in refugee policy to include assimilation of Somalis who request for it.
Even though we do not share faith with majority of the refugees, we share humanity.
Solidarity is what makes us human.
We are all in the same boat, and one cannot prosper at the expense of others and more so our neighbours, irrespective of our differences.
It is possible for such a window of opportunity to slum shut before us.
May we not regret like Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken foe of Adolf Hitler and was incarcerated in concentration camps during the last
seven years of Nazi rule:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”.
As individuals we have power.
We have influence on the issues we raise.
When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.
To lead means to take responsibility and set an example.
Let us reaffirm our faith in the dignity and worth of the human person.
The writer is a priest of All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own. (email@example.com )