Current Affairs

Refugees caught up in Kenya’s security fears

The Kenyan government has said it will close the Dadaab refugee camp, which it claims harbours terrorists from the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab

The Dadaab refugee camp is a sprawling city of tents and shacks in the east of Kenya, created to house thousands of people fleeing from the conflict in Somalia in the 1990s. Since then, it has expanded to harbour successive waves of refugees. Today, it houses more than 320,000 people.

In May, the Kenyan government said it would close the camp, citing the threat of militancy from the Somali-based Islamist terrorist group, Al Shabaab. Kenya has suffered a number of attacks claimed by the group over the past few years, including the massacre of 148 students at Garissa University — not far from Dadaab — in April 2015, and the siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013.

Kenyan troops are deployed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission; a recent attack on one of their military camps by Al Shabaab reportedly led to a large number of casualties, although the government has been tight-lipped about the true number of its soldiers that were killed.

“Repatriating or resettling the large numbers of refugees and displaced persons will be a logistical nightmare”

The threat of closure has hung over Dadaab for some time. The Kenyan government’s relationship with its ethnically Somali citizens, and its Somali migrant population, has been strained by years of often aggressive crackdowns, backed by the dubious premise of national security. Inhabitants of Nairobi’s Eastleigh district — ‘Little Mogadishu’ — report routine stop-and-searches and police raids, often with extortion, rather than enforcement, as a motivation. At various times over the past few years, the government has tried to round up and either deport refugees, or to send them to the camps that it is now threatening to close.

Those crackdowns have only served to increase tension. Robert Besseling, executive director of political risk consultancy EXX Africa, says that the approach could backfire again this time.

“The Kenyan government has long aimed to close the camps. However, repatriating or resettling the large numbers of refugees and displaced persons will be a logistical nightmare,” he says. “The closure of the camps and a likely heavyhanded approach by Kenyan security forces to expel refugees are likely to exacerbate relations with ethnic Somalis in particular.”

Al Shabaab is substantially weakened, and probably lacks the operational capability to engage in high-profile attacks in Kenya. However, domestically radicalised groups are likely to be able to exploit rising tensions to source new recruits and attract funding, according to Besseling.

“While the closure of the camps is aimed atimproving security in northeastern regions, the eventual impact is more likely to raise the security threat posed by Islamist groups and from protests staged by ethnic Somali communities,” he says.

Global parallels

Worldwide, the fear that the tenuous welcome offered to refugees could be withdrawn overshadows many humanitarian operations. The global displacement crisis stretches from Africa to Asia, with more than 15 million people across the world subject to the vagaries of national politics. As well as millions in camps, more than half of all refugees live in urban areas.

global parallels



Also found in Al Shabaab Refugees