The Kenyan government has started talks with a UN agency aimed at addressing security in the Dadaab refugee camp, which it wants closed for allegedly being a breeding ground for terrorists.
The talks seek to address security lapses in the camp that may have led to infiltration by extremists, prompting Kenya to order the relocation of more than 350,000 refugees back to Somalia in three months.
The EastAfrican has established that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative in Kenya, Raouf Mazou, held discussions last week with Cabinet Secretaries Amina Mohamed (Foreign Affairs and International Trade) and Joseph Nkaissery (Internal Security).
The talks aim at striking a middle ground between addressing the fears that Dadaab has become a recruitment ground for Al Shabaab terrorists and safeguarding the rights of refugees under international treaties.
“Forced return is one of the most serious violations of international refugee law,” said Mr Mazou. “More than humanitarian assistance, it is asylum that someone fleeing danger and persecution most needs.”
Following the April 4 Al Shabaab attack on Garissa University College in which 148 people died, Deputy President William Ruto said the government had given UNHCR three months to close the Dadaab camp, failure to which Kenya would relocate the 350,000 refugees to Somalia.
Mr Ruto reasoned that the way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.
“We must secure this country at whatever cost,” Mr Ruto said in his statement.
However, according to Mr Mazou, refugees would face a bleak future were Kenya to declare them unwanted guests. At home, Somali militants Al Shabaab control various parts of the country while Yemen, previously a safe haven, is at war.
Already, international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that the conditions do not allow for a safe and dignified return of the refugees to Somalia.
According to Charles Gaudry, MSF’s head of mission in Kenya, the move would force the refugees to return to a country where safety and medical care is not guaranteed or is non-existent.
Since the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, Kenya has borne the brunt of the crisis with some refugees knowing Dadaab as their only home. UNHCR has warned that abrupt closure of the camps and forcing refugees back home would be in breach of Kenya’s international obligations.
“In order to ensure that returns are sustainable, they should be voluntary and be adequately supported to ensure that those reaching their places of origin have access to social services,” said Mr Mazou.
“We, therefore, have to continue mobilising the international community to make sure of that. For now, we consider that large-scale returns are still not possible in many parts of the country.”
In December last year, a pilot scheme was launched to support voluntary repatriation to the relatively safe areas of Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayu but only 2,000 refugees have returned so far against a target of 10,000.
“We are ready to work with the governments of Kenya and Somalia to step up this programme where there are opportunities for voluntary repatriation,” Mr Mazou added.
The war in Yemen between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition has forced many Somali families to cross back into Somaliland or Djibouti. The UNHCR said up to 130,000 refugees could be received in the three countries by October.
Yemen was home to more than 238,000 Somali refugees.
Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, said stateless refugees — those born in the camps — and where the refugees would go were among the complex issues that would ensue from a forced repatriation.
In 2011, Al Shabaab banned some aid agencies, including most United Nations agencies, because it wanted to control the aid. In 2013, a report by Overseas Development Institute and the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies highlighted how aid agencies were forced by the militants to pay “registration fees” of up to $10,000 to access areas that they controlled so as to provide food aid to starving Somali citizens during the 2011 drought.
Kenya has the obligation under the 1951 UN convention on refugees that recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. The convention says that the host country cannot forcibly repatriate refugees to a place they had ran away from and where there are prospects that they will face persecution or even death.
However, Kenya can invoke Article 1 (h) of the Tripartite Agreement signed in 2013 between itself, the Somali government and the UNHCR, which sought to provide a legal framework for the safe and dignified voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees and their integration in Somalia.
“The attack in Garissa underlined the need for the Kenyan government to better guarantee the security of its population,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. “But this must not be done by putting at risk people Kenya is duty-bound to protect.”
Kenya argues that the same UN convention says the host country has the right to act on its own interest when it has been proven that the refugees endanger the larger population of citizens.
The UNHCR can also invoke the Cessation Clause — through which host countries and the UNHCR recognise changed circumstances in refugees’ countries of origin and allow for repatriation. In December 2012, the UNHCR invoked this clause with regard to Rwandan refugees who fled the country between 1959 and 1998, on the grounds that circumstances in Rwanda had changed.
It required the Rwandan refugees to choose one of three courses of action: Voluntarily return to Rwanda, apply for citizenship to stay in the host country or apply for an extension of their refugee status based on certain exemption criteria such as proof of persistent threat to their lives.
In East Africa, Tanzania is the only country that has naturalised refugees. In 2010, it granted citizenship to 162,156 Burundi refugees who had fled ethnic conflict in their country in 1972.
Additional reporting by Allan Olingo