The Somali refugee crisis reaches a crescendo in East Africa.

It has been one of the terrible paradoxes of the modern global refugee crisis: Often those countries least capable of responding to the complex needs of refugees are the ones forced to shoulder the greatest burden in caring for them. Money may come in from more affluent donor states to assist in these humanitarian crises, but proximity is often the main driver of humanitarian obligations. It is the local host nations that face the greatest struggles and social tensions when former regional neighbors become refugees.

That is true in Lebanon, where 1.5 million Syrians have fled over five years of civil war—even as authorities in the United Kingdom and the United States agonize over accepting a few thousand resettlement applicants—and it is true in Kenya, which has absorbed more than 600,000 people driven across its borders by drought, famine and regional conflict. 

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For more than 25 years a vast refugee camp has been thrown together on the brush desert near the northeastern Kenyan city of Dadaab. With more than 330,000 mostly Somali refugees now living at this sprawling tent city, Dadaab has become the largest single refugee camp in the world. The camp has been maintained so long an entire generation of “Somalis” has been raised within its confines who have never set foot in Somalia.

Living conditions in Kenya’s dusty and arid refugee camps are difficult; most people still reside in tent shelters that were intended to be temporary. A minority of children receive a haphazard education; most receive none at all. Their parents cannot work or plan for a future. Camp residents are prohibited from leaving to begin new lives by migrating into Kenya’s cities.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which administers the camps at Dadaab, seems perpetually resource-starved. U.N. officials regularly receive donor commitments that represent barely half of the camps’ basic needs. Life for camp dwellers is grim; gnawed by uncertainty and hunger, they have little hope to somehow escape to a better future. It is indeed hard to imagine that things could get much worse at Dadaab, but by this November, they may.

In May, Kenyan authorities confirmed their intention to close Dadaab and Kakuma, another camp that has been home to almost 200,000 refugees from throughout the region, and repatriate their inhabitants in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, and other nearby East African and Horn of Africa states from which these refugees escaped: Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Uganda. Kenyan officials say the camps have been a drain on Kenya’s resources and its environment, but they justify the closing of the camps primarily by growing security concerns.

With encouragement and support from the United States, Kenya has been confronting the Shabab Islamic extremist movement in Somalia. The terrorist group in turn has been responsible for a number of spectacular and deadly attacks on Kenyan soil, including the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013, in which 67 people were killed, and the massacre of 148 students at Garissa University College in April 2015. Officials charge that Shabab militants planned these attacks from within the Dadaab camp; the camps themselves, they say, have become vast recruitment sites for terrorists.

These allegations have been disputed by human rights advocates. “Officials have not provided credible evidence linking Somali refugees to any terrorist attacks in Kenya,” Human Rights Watch officials said in a recent statement. 

Refugee Brinkmanship?

Some diplomats believe this latest threat to close down the camps—the government first raised the prospect of clearing out its refugee sites in 2015—is part of a desperate ploy to squeeze more cash out of donor states. If so, Kenyan officials have begun an elaborate bluff this time. They have already shut down the government’s Department of Refugee Affairs; now new refugees, who continue to enter Kenya each day from neighboring states, are not being officially registered. Their status and prospects have thus become even more perilous than that of official refugees.

Kenyan officials insist they can carry out November’s vast repatriation in a humane manner and are urging U.N. officials to assist them to that end, but few humanitarian and human rights advocates believe such large numbers of people can be repatriated without the creation of vast regional and personal chaos. Only a few thousand refugees, anticipating the end of Kenyan patience with the camps, have so far voluntarily returned to their home countries.

Kenya’s bishops have strongly urged the government to reconsider the closure of the refugee camps. In a letter to the government from the bishops’ conference, they wrote: “Individuals seeking asylum in Kenya have a right to be protected and enjoy basic services until lasting solutions are found in their home countries or within the country of asylum, as well as through third country resettlement. We reiterate that any form of involuntary repatriation may expose the returnees to dangers of persecution.”

The Kenyan bishops’ concerns are shared by officials of Jesuit Refugee Service-Eastern Africa in Nairobi. The JRS communications officer Angela Wells has said JRS officials view the decision as “destructive, counterproductive and potentially catastrophic for hundreds of thousands of people with an international and national right to seek asylum and live in protected spaces.

“We condemn any violation of the [U.N.] Refugee Convention, which stipulates that refugees cannot be forcibly returned back to countries where they can face further persecution,” she added by email from Nairobi.

In their appeal to Kenyan authorities, the bishops reiterated their commitment to assist the government in handling the nation’s refugee burden but urged government officials to “reconsider this decision and pursue opportunities for dialogue and work with relevant actors to ensure the smooth and voluntary repatriation of refugees as well as prioritization of a long-term dignified refugee response.”

The bishops also urged the reactivation of the Department of Refugee Affairs in Kenya and “immediate security enhancement mechanisms within the camp by all security organs.” They added, “To all Kenyans of good-will, we urge you to respect the obligation to love your neighbors including refugees and uphold dignity of their creation in God’s image.”

The appeal of the bishops has so far not moved Kenyan officials to suspend their closure plans. Indeed, Kenya’s decision to repatriate Somali refugees is not reversible, President Uhuru Kenyatta told a U.N. representative on May 27.

Mr. Kenyatta called on the global community to partner with Kenya to ensure that the transition to repatriation would be successful. “The train has already left the station. It’s now up to those who are interested in seeing the success of the journey to come on board,” he said.

The president argues that Kenya’s action should not be interpreted as a move to abandon its international obligations under U.N. human rights conventions for the protection of refugees, pointing out that Kenya has hosted Somali refugees for decades. The decision has been criticized around the world; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has appealed for Kenyan officials to reconsider.

But Mr. Kenyatta counters that caring for the world’s refugees is a shared international responsibility. “We have made a non-permanent situation to look as permanent,” he complained.

Ms. Wells said JRS officials have little reason to doubt that the government intends to follow through on its plan by November despite the international uproar that has been generated. “However, we are not convinced this can realistically be done humanely given the sheer numbers of people with genuine reason not to want to go back home,” she said.

So far only 10,000 people have voluntarily returned since last year, “yet there are hundreds of thousands of people still in the camp, many who do not intend to ever return to a place where they or their loved ones were killed, forcibly recruited into terror groups or have undergone sexual violence.” Ms. Wells said that moving such a vast and unwilling population “safely, voluntarily and with dignity [will] be impossible without employing human rights abuses…. We assume that force would be the only way to implement such a strategy.”

Sharing the Burden

David Hollenbach, S.J., director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, acts as a consultant for Jesuit Refugee Service. He has been a visiting professor and lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and Hekima College in Nairobi and has visited JRS programs at the Kakuma camp. He acknowledges that Kenyans “have reason for concern with the Somali situation in general.” But “the question then becomes what can be done to deal with this?”

“The fix is not to send these people back,” he said. “Somalia hasn’t had a functional government for 25 years. There is a reason so many have fled from it. They want to live; they’ve fled for their lives.” Father Hollenbach suggests that more regional violence and instability may be the ultimate result of a campaign to force Somali refugees back home.

He points out that whatever the outcome of the diplomatic brinkmanship initiated by Kenya, the status of refugees both in East Africa and other hotspots around the world needs to be more vigorously addressed by the international community.

Under the best of circumstances, life in crowded camps like Dadaab and Kakuma already represents a “giant humanitarian crisis” for their unfortunate residents, he said. “You can’t put 400,000 people into a camp and just let them sit there.” Disease, poverty and hunger are already part of the refugees’ plight. “What we ought to be doing is trying to figure out how to get them integrated into an adequate life.”

Assuming Kenya is able to move forward on its repatriation plans in November, what can returning Somalis expect to confront in their home country? Nothing good, Ms. Wells fears. “They will be added to 1 million [internally displaced persons] already within Somalia who do not have nearly the same level of educational, health or lifesaving support that the refugees in Dadaab have,” she said.

“There are very few humanitarian agencies operating in the country and it’s nearly impossible to monitor what parts are ‘safe enough,’” she added. “Somalia is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, and we fear that many will be subject to sexual violence. In addition, every refugee has the individual right to seek asylum for individual reasons, so while there may be a handful of people able to go home and live peaceful lives, there are many more—ethnic minorities, defectors from armed groups or political asylees—for whom going back is a death sentence.”

Climate of Fear

According to Ms. Wells, JRS officials maintain some hope that “there is still room for negotiation and that the government will backtrack as they did last year.” She added, “This would be the only way to avoid major abuse and chaos.”

She reported that the uncertainty created by the government’s policy shift on refugees has already heightened existing tensions between Kenyans and Somalis. “I spoke to a Somali refugee community leader today working in the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh [a suburb of Nairobi known as ‘Little Mogadishu’], and he said there is a climate of fear in the neighborhood, that police harassment and arbitrary arrests are on the rise and that he is afraid every time he answers his phone that it will be a policeman asking for bribes to get Somali refugees out of jail.

“The situation is particularly dangerous,” she said, “for new arrivals, who haven’t been able to register for refugee documents since the closure of the Department of Refugee Affairs.”

However this recent crisis is resolved, Ms. Wells agreed with Father Hollenbach that long-term solutions “need to be looked at through a global lens.” More than 60 million people worldwide are fleeing persecution, she said, adding that the average time a refugee spends in displacement now is 17 years. “We need policies which not only accept, but empower refugees in any country where they flee to.”

JRS officials argue that integrating and educating refugees can benefit both refugees and host communities. Wells cited a recent Oxford University study that reports that 40 percent of refugees in Uganda who own businesses are creating jobs for Ugandan citizens. Many refugees may ultimately want to go home, “but until those homes are peaceful, inclusive and dignified places to live, they should be able to actively engage in their host societies,” she argued.

While Father Hollenbach similarly urges Kenyan officials to reconsider longstanding policies that prevent the movement of refugees and their meaningful integration into Kenyan society, he is not without sympathy for the challenges Kenya and other host nations find themselves left to confront on their own. He thinks more effective international burden sharing, both for the cost of hosting refugees and for assuming the responsibility of resettling and integrating refugees in third-party states, has to be meaningfully addressed. With 86 percent of the world’s refugees concentrated in the global South, states with better resources and the capacity to absorb resettlement candidates need to step up.

“There’s nowhere near enough being done” in terms of third-party resettlement, according to Father Hollenbach. “The United States has resettled more refugees than any other country, but we’re not even scratching the surface of the numbers that are needed today,” he said. “We’re still far from where we should be.”

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