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Closure of the Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps in Kenya

By Airi Price

This past year, the High Court of Kenya found itself in a rather familiar position. Just five years ago, they ruled against attempts to close down one of the world’s largest refugee settlement sites, the Dadaab Refugee Complex. The Court declared the immediate eviction of refugees to be illegal, discounting the government’s claim that Dadaab posed a threat to Kenya’s national security.

Those same concerns prompted a second attempt at closure in April of 2019 – only for Deputy President, William Ruto, to hastily rescind his decision following outrage from global human rights groups. In March of 2021, however, the Kenyan government once again initiated efforts to shut down Dadaab – this time including a second major site, the Kakuma Refugee Camp. In their third, and more ambitious, attempt, the government catalyzed the process of removal by tasking the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with developing a route for relocation.

As reported by Reliefweb, if the UNHCR did not act promptly, the Kenyan government would begin the forced removal of refugees back into the ongoing conflict of their home countries. The UNHCR subsequently submitted a plan for safe removal in early April of 2021. Concurrently, the High Court enacted a temporary block of such process, in response to a petition put forth arguing the unconstitutionality of Dadaab and Kakuma’s closure.

Currently, the date of closure has been revised to June of 2022, as the Kenyan government, UNHCR, and other multilateral institutions discuss sustainable solutions for refugee resettlement. Thirty years of strained resources, congested evacuation sites, and threatened spillover of violence into Kenya, have resulted in the government’s firm persistence in dismantling the camps. Though cited concerns are valid, Amnesty International emphasizes the importance of maintaining human rights, and international principles of non-refoulment, through a structured and thoughtful removal process. To assess the difficulty of such task at hand, it is imperative to understand the legacy of the Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps.

Founded in 1992, the Dadaab complex is comprised of three prominent camps – the Hagadera, Dagahaley, and Ifo. Per UNHCR, the settlements rank as the world’s second, third, and fourth largest refugee camps, respectively, and each maintain populations of 80,000 to 100,000 people. Within such masses, over 95% are Somalians who fled the coinciding dangers of civil war and environmental crises (including widespread drought and flooding).

The Kakuma Refugee Camp has similar roots. With an estimated population of 184,550, it stands as one of the largest refugee camp in the world. As it is situated near the northwestern border of Kenya, its primary residents are South Sudanese who escaped civil war back home. Kakuma also hosts a variety of other nationalities, including refugees from Somalia and 20 other countries. Together, Dadaab and Kakuma have stood for 30 years, accumulating nearly 500,000 residents.

Though the impeding sense of temporality is ever-present throughout the camps, strong cultural presence ultimately transforms into buoyant communities. As such, each camp manages a dynamic market of varied goods and services, including those of local Kenyan merchants. Over time, robust societies instinctively developed around the local market economies, growing into what UNHCR described as independent cities complete with cinemas, soccer leagues, and democratically-elected officials. In fact, IRIN News notes that if Dadaab held official township, it would be the third largest city in Kenya (after Nairobi and Mombasa).

Despite accelerated development, sustained violence in Somalia and South Sudan are producing more refugees than the camps can safely accommodate. An attempt to remedy overpopulation was seen in the recent addition of Ifo II and Kambioos camps into the Dadaab Complex. However, their subsequent spillover into neighboring communities have triggered tensions between local Kenyans and camp residents.

Further fueling refugee stigma, IRIN News accounts how the Somalian-based extremist group, al-Shabab, have extended attacks into Kenya throughout the past year. The compromised safety of both camp residents and Kenyans, serves as the Kenyan government’s primary motive for camp closure. Other proponents cite the unsustainable nature of refugee camps, human rights curbed by encampment policies, and environmental damage as further rationale.

In UNCHR’s joint statement with the Kenyan government, they outlined three options for safe removal:

  1. voluntary repatriation, the least viable given the volatile state of home countries;

  2. departures to low-to-middle income countries, offering little potential in accommodating more than a small fraction of Dadaab and Kakuma residents;

  3. and incorporation into Kenya and other East African countries through naturalization or legal resident status.

Furthering integration efforts, the Refugee Bill has been introduced to the Kenyan Parliament. Doctors Without Borders explains that if passed, this legislation provides refugees with the freedom to live, work, and engage in Kenyan society. Amnesty International is supportive of the proposed protocol, but urges for prioritization of refugees’ needs and concerns throughout the resettlement process. Rukia Ali Rage, elected in 2014, serves as the current chairwoman of the Ifo camp. As she explains to IRIN News, “we work hand in hand with the aid agencies… It would be impossible for UNHCR and its partner agencies to implement their programs without the support of the community leaders.”

Doctors Without Borders shares the same sentiment. In their response to camp closure, they highlighted the deterioration of mental health among refugees – noting the 3 suicides and 25 attempted suicides at the Dagahaley camp, alone, in 2020. Despite imminent dangers associated with maintaining Dadaab and Kakuma, competing concerns of refugee wellbeing stress the significance of a deliberate removal process and the inclusion of community leaders.

The United States remains hesitant about Kenya’s decision for camp closure. As The Guardian reports, the acting US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Robert Godec, has expressed deep concerns about the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma. The exact causes of US apprehension remain unclear; however, some speculate economic interests. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Kenya is one of the fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. The high economic activity of Dadaab and Kakuma may play a role in such feat.

Per The Conversation, camp economies generate an annual turnover of $25 million, and $14 million in annual trade profit for host-communities. With talks of a US-Kenyan free trade agreement, closure of Dadaab and Kakuma risk the disruption of current economic conditions. Overall, there is broad agreement that refugee camps are not permanent solutions, however, there remains opposition to camp closure due to the lack of sustainable, safe options for resettlement. Accordingly, proponents of closure agree with the deferred deadline, underscoring the necessity of refugee involvement in decision-making and a staggered approach to removal.

When June 2022 ultimately arrives, the resettlement of nearly 500,000 refugees will produce several implications. Aforementioned commercial contributions of the camps will almost certainly make an economic impact locally, and perhaps, nationally as well. Given the prolonged fragility of origin countries, repatriation will likely result in new tensions between those returning and locals who remained in-country (as observed in other diaspora cases). Similarly, relocation to other low-to-middle income countries will result in global strain, as the burden of accommodation simply shifts from Kenya to other regions with limited aid capacity. Proper and sustainable resettlement of Dadaab and Kakuma refugees will require unprecedented support and funding from the international community.

Cover Photo by OXFAM East Africa


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