Kenya’s Threat on Camp Closures Exposes Some Hard Truths

Refugees watch the arrival of then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. Dadaab, Kenya, May 8, 2015. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

Kenya’s government announced earlier this month that it would close Dadaab, the world’s largest cluster of refugee camps, and Kakuma, another major camp. The government has made similar announcements in the past, most recently in April 2015, but observers have taken the current one more seriously. Kenya would be wrong to close the camps—morally and pragmatically—but some members of the international community, especially the United States, could have a hard time responding to its arguments without appearing hypocritical.

The Kenyan government’s rationale for closing the camps has two components: security and money. In its initial statement, Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government cited “a pervasive and persistent terrorist threat” in the country. This threat comes from al-Shabaab, a jihadist force based in neighboring Somalia. Due to Nairobi’s military operations inside Somalia against its members, al-Shabaab has staged multiple attacks in Kenya. This includes an assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and an assault on Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya in April 2015. The Kenyan government has repeatedly asserted that these and other attacks were planned at Dadaab, an assertion the Ministry of Interior reiterated in both of its recent statements on the camp’s closure. This claim, however, is likely untrue.

On the financial front, the ministry initially cited “a fall-off in the voluntary international funding for the camps in Kenya, in favor of raising budgets in the northern hemisphere to refugees headed to the West.” In its follow-up statement, the ministry suggested that the costs of managing the camps—in terms of environmental impact, provision of services to refugees, and the economic fallout of terrorism allegedly stemming from the camps—have become unmanageable.

The question of funding leads into a broader argument from the Kenyan government about Western hypocrisy on refugees. This argument combines the concerns about security and funding. In its initial statement, the Ministry of Interior said, “Our action is taken at a time when a growing number of countries—rich and poor alike—globally are limiting refugee entry on the grounds of national security. For much lower populations than Kenya has hosted for decades.”

This assertion is partly true. On the one hand, Dadaab’s first camps date to late 1991, and as of March 2016 the complex held around 345,000 people. No “rich country” has a comparable record of hosting so many refugees for so long. Meanwhile, amid the current Syrian refugee crisis, the US had by April 2016 accepted only 1,300 of the 10,000 Syrian refugees it has pledged to shelter. On the other hand, some European countries have accepted huge numbers of refugees in recent years: Germany, which leads Europe in this category, accepted approximately a million asylum seekers in 2015 alone.

Nevertheless, Kenya’s arguments place some of its critics in awkward positions. Canada’s government, for example, has expressed concern over the decision to close Dadaab. Yet Canada, which has a population of approximately 35 million compared to Kenya’s over 45 million, has welcomed some 27,000 Syrian refugees. There is also awkwardness surrounding the question of funding: the Canadian government notes that it has provided over $13 million in funding for Dadaab in the past year. Yet severe funding shortfalls have affected the camp, causing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to cut food rations twice in the past three years. Earlier this year, Germany gave $24 million, but the monthly cost of feeding refugees at Dadaab and Kakuma nears $10 million a month. The shortfalls are recurring, meaning that it is the entire international community that has failed Kenya, and that emergency gifts are not enough to cover the gap.

Moreover, regardless of how Kenyan authorities might feel about Canada or Germany, their ultimate reference point is the United States: after the Garissa attack, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto said, “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.” If Washington can pursue securitization and exclude refugees, Kenya’s logic runs, then Kenya should be able to do the same. One can also assume that Kenyan leaders are not unaware of the current US presidential election campaign, and the harshly anti-Muslim and anti-refugee rhetoric it has featured. Kenyan authorities may also have concluded from recent experience that the international community has little will or power to dictate their behavior: both the president and the deputy president recently avoided convictions at the International Criminal Court, and Kenya’s repeated collective punishments against ethnic Somalis following domestic terrorist attacks have not garnered major international condemnation outside of human rights organizations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement on May 11 asking Kenya to reverse its decision on Dadaab. But one wonders how persuasive US diplomats can be behind closed doors, especially if their Kenyan counterparts respond with arguments like “Garissa was our 9/11,” “the US takes almost no refugees,” and “we have no money to continue running these camps.” Kenya is a key US security partner in Africa, which gives Kenyan authorities significant room to push back against Washington’s policies on non-security issues and those connected with the treatment of civilians, including refugees.

In a further bid to give their decision international legitimacy, Kenyan authorities have referenced two broader institutions: the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, which which endorsed Kenya’s view of the camps’ threat at its April 2016 meeting; and a 2013 2013 document on repatriating Somali refugees in Kenya, called the Tripartite Agreement between Kenya, Somalia, and UNHCR. Kenya’s reading of the Tripartite Agreement is disingenuous: Article 12.1 obligates all three parties “to assist Somali refugees…to return to their final destination in safety and dignity,” a provision that Kenya will fail to meet if it abruptly closes the camps, along with a number of other provisions. Notably, the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs has presented Kenya’s decision to close the camps as a betrayal of the agreement, adding, “abandoning this [agreement] will be a legal and moral failing on the part of Kenya.” Nevertheless, Kenya is arguing that time is simply up for Somali refugees in their country, and that it is the international community, rather than Kenya, that has failed to meet its obligations in terms of looking beyond Dadaab to a more sustainable solution for refugees.

Kenya would be wrong to close the camps. Given the massive populations of Dadaab and Kakuma—which add up to at least 400,000 people—there is little chance that so many could be resettled without massive suffering. An abrupt closure to the camps, moreover, would likely produce exactly the outcomes Kenya wants to avoid: an uptick in insecurity, as well as a compounding of the refugee problem as thousands flow into Somalia, only to discover that they have no homes there, and then flow back into Kenya, chaotically.

Is Kenya’s decision just posturing as it seeks more money, as some might suspect? Far to the west, Niger’s government recently told the foreign ministers of France and Germany that Niger needs a billion euros to prevent outward migration to Europe. European governments may be persuaded by the logic of stopping migrant flows at their source. But Kenyan authorities are not taking the tack that Niger’s are, and more than money is at stake. Indeed, Kenya says it has already allocated $10 million to “kick-start the repatriation process.” Events over the next few weeks will give a clue as to the seriousness of Kenya’s intentions: a Task Force on Repatriation of Refugees is expected to report to the Ministry of Interior by May 31, after which time the government says it will set a timetable for closing the camps. As the international community pushes back against that decision, various players may have to grapple with the charges of hypocrisy—not all of them easily dismissed—that Kenya has thrown up.