Kenya Has Hosted Hundreds of Thousands of Refugees in the Past Two Decades. Now, it Wants Them Out

Somali refugee women with their jerrycans prepare to fetch water in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north Nairobi, Kenya, on April 28, 2015. For many Somali refugees who grew up in Dadaab, going back to Somalia is a terrifying proposal. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Refugee camps are not supposed to be permanent, but for a long time, in eastern Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp has looked like a city, not a refuge. Over the last quarter of a century, hundreds of thousands of mostly Somali refugees and asylum seekers have been living in Dadaab, a sprawling complex the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, set up in late 1991 that has effectively become one of Kenya's largest cities. Today, more people live in Dadaab than in Newark, New Jersey.

In May, the Kenyan government announced it would shut down Dadaab, which sits about 62 miles from the Somali border, citing national security interests. That means many of the roughly 326,000 registered Somali refugees at the camp will eventually return to Somalia, a country that has suffered through more than two decades of civil war, famine and environmental crises. With more than a million people already internally displaced in Somalia, the U.N. has warned that prematurely closing Dadaab could have "potentially devastating consequences."

Kenya has agreed that the repatriation of Dadaab residents will be voluntary, safe and dignified. But to do it too quickly would be worrying. Moving hundreds of thousands of people back into a conflict zone without their cooperation is not just difficult, it could also be also illegal—a breach of international and Kenyan law. Aid workers say refugees who don't want to go back could seek shelter in camps in neighboring countries or join the flow of people making the dangerous journey to Europe.

The main problem with Dadaab, Kenyan officials say, is that it is a hub for militants: Al-Shabab—the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia—has been using Dadaab to recruit, train and plot attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall siege that left more than 60 dead. (The U.N. has noted that "clear information" is not available on the presence of terrorist elements inside Dadaab, and critics accuse the Kenyan government of scapegoating refugees to score political points by looking tough on terrorism ahead of next year's scheduled national elections.)

It's not the first time Kenya has threatened to shut down its refugee camps. After gunmen killed 148 people in an attack on Garissa University in April 2015, the government said the UNHCR had three months to close Dadaab and move the refugees, or Kenya would "relocate them ourselves." Kenya held off the forced repatriations after high-level diplomatic interventions by several governments, including the U.S., Somalia and Canada. But a year later, the proposal resurfaced. "Kenya cannot look aside and allow this threat to escalate further," Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said after the May announcement. "There comes a time when we must think primarily about the security of our people.… That time is now."

After negotiations, Kenya, Somalia and the U.N. said in a joint statement on June 25 that they had agreed on a proposed timeline, aiming to reduce Dadaab's population by 150,000 by the end of the year. While those people won't just be Somalis going home—it includes moving non-Somalis to other camps and Kenyan citizens who have registered as refugees in order to access camp services—it's still a big job.

Kenya's decision to close Dadaab came soon after the EU signed a multibillion-dollar deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees going to Europe. Kenyan officials appeared to be directly following Europe's lead. "This is the standard practice worldwide," Nkaissery said in a statement , citing "rich, prosperous and democratic" countries in Europe that have turned away refugees from Syria, "one of the worst war zones since World War II."

Karanja Kibicho, a senior Kenyan official responsible for national security, said in a statement in May that as more international donor money has gone to the European refugee crisis, there has been a "falloff" in international funding for the camps in Kenya. "International obligations in Africa should not be done on the cheap," he wrote.

It's a legitimate concern. Globally, UNHCR's programs have about half the funding they need, says Andreas Needham, a UNHCR spokesman, but the shortfall in African countries is much greater, particularly as crises like Somalia are protracted and not getting the attention they should. Last October, UNHCR asked donors for $500 million for refugee programs in Kenya and Somalia. About $110 million was subsequently pledged, and only about $7.2 million has come through so far—only 1.4 percent of what was requested.

After Kenyan media reported that the government wanted to close the camp by November, the U.N. asked for more time to find a way to speed up the program of voluntary returns initiated under a 2013 agreement between the U.N., Kenya and Somalia to ensure that Somalis who want to return could go back safely and with support. More than 16,000 people have chosen to go back under that program to a handful of areas in Somalia the U.N. has identified as safe; thousands more have said they are interested. Kenya has bemoaned the slow pace, but finding a safe home for hundreds of thousands of people isn't easy. "Right now, Somalia is not really ripe for wide-scale mass returns," says Needham.

In Somalia, Al-Shabab still poses a threat. Though weakened by Somali and international forces, the group maintains a presence in rural parts of Somalia, particularly in the south; in June, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for two attacks on hotels in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, that killed more than 30 people.

The Somali government has said a sudden, unilateral move to close the refugee camps could increase the threat from regional terrorism. Analysts agree that sending people back to unstable areas is likely to make it easier for militant groups seeking recruits. "A return to Somalia where [refugees] are not sure about their safety and security is making a mess out of it," says Peter Aling'o, office director and senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. It could, he says, make people begin to look at the Kenyan government as an enemy.

Nor is closing the camp a sure bet to solve Kenya's Al-Shabab problem. Though security in the camp has not been perfect, the group has been recruiting across Kenya and has a larger presence in Kenya's big cities, including Nairobi, says Aling'o. "You will be closing the camp…but you won't have dealt with the entire problem," he says. "I don't think it's a long-term solution. It's a quick solution."