Kenya Threatens To Close Refugee Camp

May 21, 2016
Originally published on May 21, 2016 8:32 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's move on now to talk about a refugee crisis. And this is one you may not have heard about. Kenya has announced plans to close the largest refugee camp in the world. And if that happens, we may see one of the largest forced migrations in decades.

At least 350,000 Somali refugees - mostly women and children who fled the war in Somalia - live in the Dadaab camp in northern Kenya. Kenya has made this threat in the past, but hasn't followed through. But observers are wondering whether this time is different, or this is a negotiation? NPR's and Gregory Warner is in Nairobi, and he's going to tell us more. Hi thanks for joining us.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Thanks Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, could you just describe the camp for us? Could you help us picture it?

WARNER: Yeah. I was thinking, you know, you could think of this as a camp or a city or a prison. And it's got elements of all three. So the camp began in 1991 at the start of the war in Somalia. Since then, there have been successive waves of new refugees. So people don't even know exactly how many people are there; officially it's 350,000. Unofficial estimates are close to half a million.

And when you drive around a camp with this many people, it feels anything but temporary - you know, not just in the way people live - many of them in permanent structures by this point - but it's a bustling economy, like a small city in its identity as well. I mean, we're in a place now with 25 years on where a generation born in the camp are themselves getting married and having children. So they say we don't know Somalia. We've never been there. We left as kids. And Kenya, obviously, doesn't want us. We're this new breed - we're Dadaabian.

MARTIN: Why did Kenyan authorities say they want to close the camp?

WARNER: Kenya calls this a security issue. They say it's antiterrorism. Kenya has in the last few years endured a wave of terror attacks on the shopping mall, on a university campus, all by Somali militants.

The thing is that not a single terrorist in those attacks was a resident of Dadaab. In fact, you could make a strong argument that closing the camp is worse for Kenyan security if you send all these people without livelihoods to Somalia to be recruited by terrorist groups. So yet, nevertheless, Kenyan people are overwhelmingly supporting this move. Even antigovernment critics are cheering.

You know, I think we can see this in the context of Kenyan politics and anti-Somali sentiment that's been building up. But also globally, I mean, a rise of nativist, protectionist movements, you know, whether you want to call it Donald Trump or the far right in Europe. I mean, Kenya specifically cited those trends in its first announcement that it would close the camp. The interior minister drew a parallel. He said well, the European countries aren't accepting Syrian refugees. Why should we deal with the Somalis?

MARTIN: We noted before that Kenya has threatened this before. And previously, this has been resolved through an international agreement. Is there something different this time that raises this concern that this may actually be a credible threat?

WARNER: You know, for weeks, the Kenyan government has said this is not about money. This camp has to close. But clearly, Western governments are looking for a negotiated solution that will avoid that forced mass migration you were talking about. And Kenya did give a sign that this week it might be open to a deal.

The Kenyan president in a meeting with U.N. security officials mentioned Turkey, which has recently struck a deal with the EU for $4.2 four billion in exchange for retaining the Syrian refugees. So we may see Kenya trying to do the same thing - using the Somali refugees as leverage to squeeze more funding out of the West, which, you know, we should say in their defense, funding for Somali refugees has decreased substantially because of the Syrian crisis.

MARTIN: So let's just say the camp doesn't close. What's the future for this group of people?

WARNER: I mean, yeah, you have almost half a million people in limbo with no foreseeable way out because there's no way they're going to be repatriated into Kenya. They don't have a connection to Somalia. Everyone always talks - well, when peace comes to Somalia - Somalia is as peaceful as it's ever been. But it's a tremendously fragile place, so it's hard to imagine.

And this camp just grows. The birth rate is far greater than the rate of people leaving the camp voluntarily. So I think this camp is going to be with us for a while.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Gregory Warner. He's in Nairobi. Gregory, thanks so much for talking with us.

WARNER: Thanks Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.