The UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it will cut food rations by 30 percent for the hundreds of thousands of Somalis in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya. WFP said the decision is the result of funding shortfalls. However, many of the Somali refugees believe the reductions are the result of a Kenyan government move to close the Dadaab and push the Somali refugees toward “voluntary” repatriation to Somalia.
Throughout the 20th century, it was a common and largely uncontested practice for refugees to be placed in camps when they arrived in their country of asylum. The advantages of this arrangement appeared to be self-evident. However, alternatives to camps must be pursued as a global principle, while the provision of appropriate support to refugees in urban centers and rural host communities must be guaranteed.
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, has never been an easy place to live. Stretching for miles and across arid land in Kenya’s underdeveloped northeast region, Dadaab is home to several hundred thousand refugees, primarily from Somalia, who are seeking refuge from war and hunger in their home country. Dadaab’s residents subside on monthly food rations, struggle to find work among limited opportunities, and face restrictive Kenyan policies that prevent the establishment of anything resembling permanent infrastructure.
Kisimayo, the capital of the southern-most province of Somalia, was recovered from the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization in 2012 by Kenyan and Somali troops. With the change of control, the local government is now actively trying to set up a functioning administration. Yet a mere 10 to 15 km from the city, areas are still under control of the same terrorist group from which many refugees fled in the past decade. My colleague Mark Yarnell and I recently visited Kisimayo to see how the Somali refugees returning from Kenya’s Dadaab camp are faring.
Earlier today, the Kenyan government issued a deeply troubling statement on the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Citing national security concerns, Ministry of Interior Principal Secretary Dr. Eng Karanja Kibicho announced that “hosting of refugees has come to an end.” The statement is a major blow to the most basic fundamentals of refugee rights.
Ja’far Abdikadir* is a shoe shiner in Dagahaley. He has been working for a couple of years as the breadwinner for a desperate family comprising of a mother and siblings. Ja’far at the age of 13 years simultaneously manages to go to school and work as a shoe shiner. The latter is the only source of income for this vulnerable family.
Kenya hosts nearly half a million registered Somali refugees, the vast majority of whom live in the Dadaab camps in the country’s North Eastern province. For over two decades, armed conflict and food shortages have caused major waves of Somalis to flee south, across the Kenyan border for refuge – most recently during the 2011-2012 famine – when war and drought combined to kill over 260,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have also taken refuge in Ethiopia.
For the sake of Somali refugees like Farah, let’s also hope that refugee rights are on the agenda. For years, Somali refugees in Kenya have faced abuse and extortion at the hands of Kenya’s security services. However, as Kenyan government officials have sought to link the broad refugee population with the threat of terrorism, police have used this as leverage to detain, abuse, and extort money from refugees at unprecedented levels.
It’s a sunny morning in the city of Nairobi. I am greeted on a busy street by my friend, Fatima. Fatima tells me about the difficulty she has had since I was last in Nairobi a year ago. She is a refugee from Somalia. She and her mother fled Somalia in 2009 after an attack by the Al Shabab terrorist organization. Her father was killed and her brothers were ‘lost’. She and her mother arrived in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, but her mother did not live long after their arrival. On her own at the age of 14, Fatima, like many young unaccompanied women, chose to come to Nairobi.
For decades, Kenya has provided a safe haven to thousands of refugees from neighboring countries fleeing war, persecution, and famine. While most reside in refugee camps, a significant number have made their way to urban centers like Nairobi where they have better access to jobs, education, and medical care. But growing insecurity within Kenya, including terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab, have triggered xenophobic responses.