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Eviction notice

by Isaac Sagala


More than 400,000 refugees live in Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma and Dadaab camps. In March, they were told they would face eviction within a year. Kenya’s government, saying the camps are recruitment grounds for terrorists, plans to close both camps by June 2022. Most likely, however that deadline will be missed.

Refugees living in the two camps reacted with alarm nonetheless. Some fear returning to their countries of origin, as the problems that caused them to flee still exist. Others say their camp is their only home; indeed, the camps house generations of refugees.

Backed by human-rights groups, these refugees are asking the government to reconsider. “I was born here; I know no other home,” said Hassan Mohamed, a Somali ­refugee living in Dadaab. “I have never been to Somalia; I don’t even know what the country looks like. Telling me to go there is like a punishment.”
“If you send me back to South Sudan, what am I going to do there?”, asked a Kakuma Camp resident who wished to be identified as Deng Bol Deng. “I do not know anyone there. I came to Kakuma in 1996 when I was two years old. This camp has raised me. I got an education here that I would not have gotten in my home country. It gave me a chance in life.”

He added, “maybe the government and the UN should consider taking us to a third country, as our home country still faces a threat of war. If I got a work permit in Kenya it might not be useful, as even people in the host community of Kakuma struggle to get jobs.”

Camp residents are scared. Announcements of this kind had occurred previously, and it is obvious that camp closure is a popular topic that resonates with many Kenyans. Aside from expressing security concerns, the government says refugee camps should not be long-term residences in the first place. “A camp is not a permanent thing,” Raychelle Omamo, the cabinet secretary for foreign affairs said in April. “It is a place of limbo. No one should live in a place of uncertainty or indignity generation after generation.”
At the time, she said the government was working on ways to close the camps cooperatively and in compliance with the Global Compact on Refugees. Some refugees would return to their countries of origin, while others would be sent to third countries. Citizens of East African Community (EAC) countries would get work permits and be offered the option to stay in Kenya and integrate into Kenyan society.

Home to over 200,000, established in 1992

The Kakuma camp, located in North West Kenya, was established in 1992 and is home to over 200,000 refugees, mostly from South Sudan. Other countries of origin include Sudan, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The Dadaab camp was established in 1991 near Kenya’s border with Somalia. It houses over 200,000 refugees, most of them Somalis.

An earlier attempt to close the Dadaab camp was made in 2013, when Kenya’s parliament called the camp a training ground for suspected Al-Shabaab militants. This group – a terrorist, jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa – carried out the 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi. Other terror attacks in Kenya, including the 2015 Garissa University and the 2019 DusitD2 Hotel attacks, were also linked to Al-Shabaab. Kenya tried again in 2016 to close the camps and repatriate refugees.

The initiative in spring was different in an important respect, as a commentator has argued on the website theelephant.org. “Unlike previous calls, the latest call to close Dadaab that came in March 2021 was not triggered by any major security lapse but, rather, was politically motivated,” wrote Abdullahi Abdille Shahow. “It came at a time of strained relations between Kenya and Somalia.”

It matters that there is a strong anti-Somali sentiment in Kenya. The online comment made an interesting point: The scheme proposed by the government would have meant that Somali refugees would have had to move to their country of origin, whereas South Sudanese refugees would have been permitted to stay in Kenya. South Sudan, after all, belongs to the East African Community. Somalis living in the camps might be a soft target. On the other hand, Kenya has a large Somali community, and there are more Somalis in Nairobi than in the camps.

Other observers believe that the government is trying to put pressure on international donor agencies. Steps towards closing the camps might twist their arms and result in more generous funding, after all.

Isaac Sagala
is a journalist and media trainer. He lives in Nairobi.

[email protected]

Correction: This is an updated manucript we produced for December's Digital Monthy.



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