Somalia Says Closing Kenya Refugee Camps Would Increase Al-Shabab Threat

Dadaab refugee camp
An aerial view of the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border in Garissa County, Kenya, April 3, 2011. Kenya wants to close the camps, which house more than 300,000 mostly Somali refugees. Thomas Mukoya/File Photo/Reuters

Kenya will be guilty of a “legal and moral failing” and will increase the threat of terrorism if it goes ahead with plans to close huge refugee camps, the Somalian government has said.

Kenya’s Interior Ministry announced on Wednesday the closure of the Dadaab refugee complex—a collection of camps in eastern Kenya housing around 330,000, mostly Somali, refugees. The interior ministry’s cabinet secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, claimed that the camps had become “hosting grounds” for Somali militant group Al-Shabab and that other extremist movements, such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), could also use them as a weak spot by which to enter Kenya.

Kenya has also indicated it plans to close the Kakuma camp in the country’s northwest, which hosts 180,000 refugees mostly from South Sudan. The East African country is hosting more than 600,000 refugees in total.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its “grave reservation” about Kenya’s stance. “This decision will negatively affect the majority of Somali refugees who are housed in the two camps and will make the threat of terrorism worse, not better, given the volatile situation this sudden decision and the proposed subsequent actions will cause,” the statement said.

Al-Shabab has been at war with Kenya since the latter’s invasion of Somalia in 2011 in response to repeated cross-border kidnappings by the group, which is aligned with Al-Qaeda. Militants affiliated to Al-Shabab have carried out several attacks on Kenyan soil, including the murder of at least 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and the killing of 148 people at Garissa University College in April 2015.

Nkaissery said both the Westgate and Garissa attacks were “planned and deployed from Dadaab... by transnational terrorist groups.” The secretary also said that the camps were being used as “permanent settlements” and that the international community had failed to implement an agreement signed in 2013 by Kenya, Somalia and the United Nations Refugee Agency on repatriating refugees. “As a country, we have been glad to help our neighbors and all those in need, sometimes at the expense of our security. But there comes a time when we must think primarily about the security of our people... That time is now,” said Nkaissery’s statement.

Following the Garissa attack, Kenya announced in April 2015 that the Dadaab camps would be closed in three months but rowed back on the decision under international pressure. Its recent announcement has prompted criticism from the international community and domestic aid agencies. The U.N. Refugee Agency has said that Kenya’s decision could violate international obligations regarding the protection of refugees fleeing danger and persecution, particularly since conflict is still raging in parts of Somalia and, to a lesser extent, South Sudan.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights said that the government’s decision constituted a “blanket condemnation of all refugees as threats to security” and urged a distinction to be made between criminal and non-criminal elements in the camps.