Crisis looms as Kenya decides to close refugee camp

Refugees would be sent back to either their country or to other third nations if Kenya closes the camp in November as planned.
The Dadaab camp on the Kenya-Somalia border is the world’s largest refugee camp and hosts nearly 350,000 refugees who fled Somalia’s decades-long civil war.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The Dadaab camp on the Kenya-Somalia border is the world's largest refugee camp and hosts nearly 350,000 refugees who fled Somalia's decades-long civil war.
Refugees would be sent back to either their country or to other third nations if Kenya closes the camp in November as planned.PHOTO: REUTERS

NAIROBI • Kenya is to send Somali refugees in the world's largest camp back to their war-torn country or other third nations by November, Kenya's Interior Minister said.

The sprawling Dadaab camp on the Kenya-Somalia border hosts some 350,000 refugees, the vast majority of whom fled Somalia's more than two-decade-long conflict.

Kenya said earlier this month it would shut down the camp, and set up a team to explore how it could be achieved.

"I want to inform the world that the decision to close Dadaab camp is final," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Nkaissery said on Tuesday after receiving the team's report.

"We hope to close the camp latest by November this year."

Mr Nkaissery said the report would be shared with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

"On our side, we will prepare security and ensure it is done in the most humane way," he added, noting that the report was "very clear on the timelines" to ensure refugees left. "But this is a UNHCR exercise, we are just there to help them to get the refugees back."

Charities and the UN have voiced dismay at the closure plan, while rights groups have warned that forcibly repatriating refugees would break international law.

Experts had cast doubt on whether a move to close the camp would be legal.

"It would cause a huge humanitarian crisis, plus sending Somali refugees back would mean violating international conventions," Dr Anne Hammerstad of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent in England and an expert on refugee issues told AFP in May.

Nairobi has also bemoaned the high cost of maintaining Dadaab, even though the international community, via the UNHCR, covers most costs.Last month, the UNHCR voiced "profound concern" over any move to shut Dadaab, while hailing Kenya's "extraordinary role over the years in hosting refugees." The country is currently home to some 600,000 refugees.

Mr Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International's refugee affairs officer in Kenya, said last month that he was "totally opposed" to the closure but agreed that "in a sense, we agree with Kenya, the international community does not do its part".

Kenya's plan to close the camp was revealed ahead of an international humanitarian summit in Istanbul, as well as before a visit by the head of the UN refugee agency to Kenya and before the September expiration of a 2013 deal on Somali refugees between Nairobi, Mogadishu and the UNHCR.

Analysts said it was a means for Kenya to put the issue back on the international agenda at a time when attention is focused on the migrant crisis in Europe.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Crisis looms as Kenya decides to close refugee camp'. Print Edition | Subscribe