Refugee camps are – at least in theory – a place set up to respond to an emergency situation. But as numerous conflicts showed us, the return of refugees to their respective countries tends to be hampered for several reasons, making these camps more permanent than what they were initially supposed to be. Symbolizing contemporary conflicts, refugees have became major victims of recent wars and the phenomenon has affected many countries, as the current migrant crisis in Europe testifies. Refugees camps may raise concerns among governments, in particular when they tend to be lasting. Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya perfectly illustrates this fact.
Created in 1991 in order to face population flows fleeing the Somalian crisis, Dadaab refugee camp has been surviving for decades. In 2012, it housed close to 463 000 refugees. It is, until now, the oldest but also largest camp worldwide. Owing to its permanence, many infrastructures have developed there. In addition to housings, schools, vocational training centres, clinics, mosques and other places of worship, as well as police and bus stations, and even a cemetery, have been built within the site to respond to refugees needs. Over time, the camp has been organised and structured like a city within a city. This kind of long-lasting camps tends to grow in conflicted areas, such as in former Yugoslavia, Darfur or the Great Lakes region. Since 2005, the number of refugees across the continents has been drastically growing – especially due to the Syrian crisis, the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) estimating that they were 52,9 millions at the beginning of 2015.
Previous week, Kenyan government stated it no longer wanted to receive newly refugees and therefore would close the two main camps in the country, located in Dadaab and Kakuma. The first one currently hosts around 344 000 people. Joseph Nkaissery, the Interior Cabinet Secretary, explained that this decision has been taken “for security matters involving the safety of Kenyans, against the backdrop of terrorist and criminal activities (…)”. He added that 10 millions dollars have been committed to this operation. While asserting that camps have become shelters for the Al Shabbab Islamists and places for smuggling activities, Nkaissery assured that refugees would whether be repatriated within their home country or resettled in third countries. Another official, Karanja Kibicho, said that the government hoped the first refugees would leave Dadaab from November and that the camp would be definitively closed by May 2017. Yet, in 2009, while hundreds of Somalis daily arrived, UN humanitarian agencies urged Kenya to provide more lands to face the situation.
National security has been a major matter of concern for the current Kenyan government, especially since the two attacks led by the Al Shabbab against the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013 (at least 67 dead) and the university of Garissa in 2015 (148 killed). The intention to close Dadaab refugee camp is to be viewed in this context. Nonetheless, the UNHCR and numerous NGOs have condemned the decision, arguing that forced repatriations of refugees infringe international conventions. Nkaissery responded to these accusations by claiming that “refugee camps are not permanent settlements, they are not migration centres, and yet this seems to be what refugee camps in Kenya have been turned into”, while reiterating that the hosting of refugees for 25 years has been costly for the country and tax payers. For some observers, there is nonetheless a major issue: Somalia does not want returnees for now. As the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion said, “expelling vulnerable Somali refugees at a time Somalia is making internationally recognised progress towards stability will only increase the risk of insecurity in the region”. This statement does not help clarifying the – already precarious – situation of Somalis, which will be all the more worrisome if Dadaab has to be closed.