The Kenyan government, now with the backing of the United Nations, has ordered the refugee camp in Dadaab near the Somali border to close by the end of November. While multilateral institutions like the UN generally aid in transporting large groups of refugees as far as needed if a camp becomes unsuitable, this situation is made more complicated because of the size of the refugee population- as Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp. The camp opened 1991 and has housed hundreds of thousands of refugees, making it Kenya’s third largest “city”. Moving more than 326,000 vulnerable people, mostly Somalis, back into a war zone seems to be against the UNHCR’s stated mission of safely repatriating refugees only once their home environment is stable and secure. Despite this, thousands of Somalis are being forced to move back into destitute and violent conditions. Wealthy world powers and institutions have been quick to criticize Kenya for turning its back on its refugee community; however, it is these same nations that encourage the rest of the world to take on refugees while refusing to accept a significant percentage themselves. The closing of Dadaab can be used as a case study in the systemic failure within the international community in prolonging the refugee crisis, and the unsustainable gap in action between those who write refugee policy and those who carry it out.
Reports from inside the Dadaab camp paint an appalling picture of destitution, boredom, hunger, and hopelessness that the world has become numb to when discussing refugees. Each day, hundreds of new arrivals trek miles across Eastern Africa with only what they can carry, to a camp whose amenities mirror their desolate desert surroundings. Thousands of tents and wooden huts tied together with branches sprawl across the landscape, sparsely dotted with livestock as undernourished as the residents.
Back in war-torn and stateless Somalia, interviews conducted in Kismayo reveal the first evidence that refugees have been forcefully repatriated into unstable areas. Kismayo is one of the largest port cities of Somalia and is of strategic and economic importance to whoever controls it. As a result, it has been a constant battleground between the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab and the Somali government. Katra Abii, a Somali refugee living in Dadaab since her children were born, says “The Kenyans told us that it’s time to return to your home country. They told us we don’t have a choice.” However, one of the fundamental principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention is that of non-refoulement; stating that a refugee cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. By sending refugees back into Somalia, the UNHCR and signatory states to the Convention are doing precisely the opposite of the policy they adopted in 1951.
UNHCR’s more recent Voluntary Repatriation of Somali Refugees from Kenya Operations Strategy for 2015-2019 outlines the processes and justifications for closing Dadaab and ensuring the safe return of more than 330,000 Somalis. Despite the incredible work UNHCR undertakes around the world to address an unprecedented global refugee crisis, the current situation of repatriation to Somalia is rife with inconsistencies to its core beliefs. The closing of Dadaab is partly justified by UNHCR figures that suggest the number of Somali refugees in Kenya since 2011 has decreased by almost 99,000; which they are calling “spontaneous returns.” However, this decrease in camp residents at Dadaab is likely not due to the fact that families are finding a safe and prosperous return to Somalia. Refugees that returned have stated that they were misinformed about the security situation in Somalia, and took a chance in hoping their homeland would provide a better life than Dadaab.
Security concerns are also cited as reasoning to its closing, primarily from terrorist threats posed by al-Shabaab. The Westgate Mall attacks and the April 2015 attack at Garissa University both have connections to Dadaab as a recruitment base of Islamic extremist fighters. Repatriation to Somalia on the basis of terrorist fears makes no sense though, as the majority of these refugees come from the South Central regions of Somalia that al-Shabaab currently controls, making their activity and recruitment there much higher than anywhere in Kenya. A new influx of civilians into this area would only conveniently increase the militant group’s recruiting base on their own home front.
The problems of al-Shabaab’s increasing influence in nearby refugee camps and Kenyan domestic security are clearly crucial issues for the region. However, the largest contributor to the forced repatriation of some of the world’s most vulnerable people is a large discrepancy between the nations who write refugee policy and those who carry it out. The six wealthiest nations in the world host less than nine percent of the world’s refugees. Eighty-six percent of refugees are residing in developing countries, usually in camps. Nations like Kenya, Greece, and Turkey, who host some of the largest refugee populations, have significant financial pressures at home. Their paramount goals are understandably developing their own nations and providing basic state services for their own citizens. In contrast, the majority of financially secure, primarily Western signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention are not living up to the promises they have made with their pens. It is simply miscalculated to condemn Kenya for closing Dadaab when countries that actually hold the resources to humanely house refugees refuse to do so themselves. It is true that Kenya’s decision to shut down Dadaab leaves Somali refugees, who have been waiting in limbo their whole lives just to lead a safe life, without options. But Kenya was left with just as few.
Instead of condemning Kenya for making a difficult financial and security decision, the international community should look for alternative locations to house refugees while the larger issues of war and insecurity in these countries are worked out. While it seems at first like a lose-lose situation due to the burden of the host country, integrating refugees into the workforce and society of whichever country they reside in is mutually beneficial. Isolating refugees in a camp on the physical and economic outskirts of a society makes them dependent and fated to live on only what their host state can provide them; which historically has been the bare minimum for survival. The legislative nightmare that refugees face in seeking asylum with the limited resources they have is compounded by the efforts of wealthier nations to block their arrival and integration. In January 2016, Denmark passed a bill that allows for the seizure of refugees’ assets- both cash and possessions- upon their arrival in the country. Members of the Danish Parliament even defended it saying it was intended to make the country “a little bit less attractive” to refugees. Ironically, Denmark was the first to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Beyond just Somalia and Kenya, the refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian disasters we have seen in decades. Even disregarding this though, as humanitarianism ranks low on many national agendas, there are pertinent economic reasons to rethink our distribution of vulnerable and displaced people in the world. While repatriation to a safe, conflict-free home country is the ideal for most refugees, integration into their host country while they wait for this peace is second best. In most of the conflicts that create massive population movements, resolution is not on the near horizon. Keeping people isolated in camps is not a durable solution for these prolonged conflicts, and will only act as a drain on resources for the host nation. However, the societal integration of these hard working and aspirational people has proven to actually benefit local and national economies. Reports find that refugees appear more likely than other groups to open small businesses, which raises the wages of the nation as a whole. Similarly, the skill diversification they bring tends to create growth, not job competition. Immigrants bring a push for economic specialization, and specialization increases productivity, which in turn increases the size of the firm and the amount of jobs that can be created. As a return for the up-front costs of investing in housing and job-seeking assistance for refugees, great economic and social benefits will be returned. If more signatory nations to the 1951 Refugee Convention directed their attention to bringing refugees onto their own soil instead of delegating out this responsibility, millions of lives halted by war could resume. For both their value as fellow humans and the benefits they bring economically in the midst of crisis, we must start thinking about refugees as an investment rather than a burden.