United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, defines a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. According to UNHCR data, there were approximately 26.4 million refugees in the world at the end of 2020. Kenya has for the past 30 years played host to one of the largest population of refugees at camps in the North Eastern part of the country. In Turkana County, Kakuma and Kalobeyei camps host approximately 300,000 refugees from Rwanda, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. In Garissa County, conservative estimates of the population of the Dadaab camp stand at 218,000 registered refugees mostly from the south of Somalia.
In recent times, the Kenyan government has been calling for the closure of the refugee camps.
Kenya first demanded to close the Dadaab refugee camp in 2016 citing national security concerns after the Garissa University attack in 2015 and subsequently went ahead to stop the registration of refugees in 2016 by disbanding the Department of Refugee Affairs. This was a well-intentioned effort aimed at reducing the pool of radicalization that seemingly existed in the camp, according to intelligence reports. There has also been intermittent pressure for refugees to be repatriated back to Somalia which has not been very effective with many returning to the camps after a brief stint in Somalia under unbearable conditions. Fast forward to March, 2021 when Interior Minister, Dr. Fred Matiangi gave UNHCR a mere 14 days within which to draw up a plan for the closure of Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. A crisis meeting and a court ruling later saw this impending closure pushed forward to 30th June, 2022 with the Interior Minister averring that “The decision to close Dadaab and Kakuma camps by June 30, 2022 is in our country’s public interest.”
The June 30th deadline is a looming two months away and without proper planning and consideration of the complexities around refugees, the country could soon have an even bigger problem of radicalization and terrorism on its hands. To put this in context, a majority of the population of refugee camps is quite youthful (15 to 24 years). Research has shown that the youth are very impressionable and vulnerable to imbibing violent ideologies. Coupled with despair, poverty, uncertainty, lack of autonomy, hunger, disenfranchisement, lack of education and poor socially inclusive networks which is characteristic of refugee camps, the youth in the camps are highly vulnerable to radicalization. Expelling refugees to return to the South part of Somalia (the original home of most of the residents of the camp) which remains decidedly insecure and is still largely under the control of al-Shabaab is simply defeatist in the fight against terrorism and preventing violent extremism. Short of stymieing the impending closure of the camps, there needs to be a concerted effort between the Kenyan government and international partners to create programs that build trust and fosters the integration of refugees in order to reduce the risk factors for violent radicalization among refugees. This would be a stop-gap measure to avert crisis as all parties work towards figuring out the best solution for all the refugees and Kenya’s security interests in the long term.