AS WORLD leaders gathered in Istanbul this week for the World Humanitarian Summit, Kenya’s government dropped a bombshell announcement — that it plans to close the Dadaab refugee camp in six months, which with 400,000 mostly Somali residents is the largest in the world. Deputy President William Ruto said the camp is a “center for recruitment, radicalization and training and planning for terrorist attacks by al-Shabab.” Kenya undoubtedly is on the front line against terrorism and has been a key ally of the United States in combating al-Shabab Islamist extremists in Somalia. But closing the camp would be not only a grave violation of international law but also a humanitarian and security disaster.
This is not the first time that the Kenyan government has engaged in reckless rhetoric about the Dadaab camp. It threatened to close the facility after an al-Shabab attack at Garissa University in April 2015, prompting protests from rights groups and governments around the world. The latest announcement appears similarly linked to current events: The European Union cut a $3.4 billion deal with Turkey to help stem the flow of refugees coming into Europe. Earlier this month, the government of Niger asked for $1.2 billion from Europe to keep migrants from crossing the sea to Europe. Possibly the government of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta hopes to extract its own ransom for Dadaab’s upkeep. Meanwhile as election season in Kenya heats up, the scapegoating of refugees from Somalia provides a welcome distraction from other issues, such as the government’s corruption and its counterterrorism failures.
Closure would be unacceptable. Beyond the devastating human toll, shutting the camp and sending hundreds of thousands back to Somalia would be logistically close to impossible. Dadaab, which has existed for nearly 25 years, is so big that it would be Kenya’s third-largest town. A significant part of its population has known no other home. Forcibly repatriating hundreds of thousands of residents to Somalia could boost al-Shabab’s terrorism. Large numbers of helpless and vulnerable people would provide a fertile recruiting ground for militants.
There is no reason for donor countries or the United Nations to give in to Kenya’s blackmail. While following through on existing financial commitments of support, they should make clear that the camp’s closure is a red line that would provoke a shutdown of all aid to the Kenyatta government.
However, this saga highlights a need for a more sustainable approach to supporting refugees in Dadaab. After almost 25 years, it is time for Kenya and the world to admit that the camp has become much more than a temporary shelter. Residents of Dadaab live in a constant state of unbearable limbo — banned from working legally in Kenya and unable to return safely to Somalia. The goal should be to find a way to allow Dadaab residents to contribute formally to the Kenyan economy. Figuring out a way to give refugees and camp residents greater economic and human rights would offer more of a buffer against terrorism than would throwing helpless people back into harm’s way.