Potential Humanitarian and Cultural Catastrophe: Closure of African Refugee Camps

According to Al Jazeera, the forced closure of the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps would be a humanitarian and cultural catastrophe. “We call it a camp, but it’s really a city,” Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Head of Sub-Office Kakuma, told the OFID Quarterly.
Kakuma Camp is located in rural Kenya and is home to over 150,000 refugees from South Sudan and Somalia. Kakuma Camp has been around for 26 years and is seen no longer as a temporary place of safety but has transitioned into an ‘urban centre’ with over 1,200 refugee-run businesses.


Safi Kisasa owns one of these small businesses; she earns her income through bread making and employees over a dozen other people whom all live in the camp. She bakes over 1,000 loaves per week. If the camp closes, there is a real possibility that her business and her livelihood she has created for her family. She received help from UN business courses that helped her gain a deeper understanding of how business works. They also gave her access to credit and support in getting refugee status & work permits from host Governments.


The camp environment is like no other; it has allowed refugees to rebuild their lives and create solutions to become more self-reliant. “In the last couple of years, there has been a shift in the mindset of refugees in Kakuma. We have gone from seeing ourselves as hopeless victims who rely on food aid and NGO assistance to viewing the camp as ours, and becoming active and productive members of society,” says M H Mohamud, a Somalian refugee. The camp also has 39 schools, 21 are primary schools, and have seen 92% of children in the camp enrolled. This camp has curated its own culture over the years; it is not just a group of cultures living alongside each other but also forming all of them together.


However, there is now a real possibility of forced closure of this camp. Experts argue that the forceful closure will be a humanitarian and cultural disaster in Africa. On March 24th, the Kenyan government made a threat to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It demanded that they have a clear timetable for closing the Kakuma Refugee camp and The Dadaab Camp, both of Africa’s largest camps. This threat came as the result of growing tensions between Kenya and Somalia. Since then, there has been no move from the Kenyan government to close the camp forcibly. This is the second time (the other being in 2016) that the government has done such a thing. However, the threat was taken very seriously and caused aid workers and camp residents to worry that the threat and the lurking timetable to close the camp is grave, and the fate of both the camps is still up in their air.


Kenya has, without a doubt, played a huge humanitarian role over the years by housing so many refugees since 1992, and the camps are the oldest operational camps in Africa. Dadaab was created as a result of the Somali civil war, and since 1992 the camp is what 250,000 people call home. With half of the residents being from Somalia, and now over 20 countries are represented in both camps. If the Kenyan government attempted to permanently close the camps without the knowledge and approved participation from both the UNHCR and the refugees themselves, it would cause catastrophic events. The residents of these camps are now legally designated refugees, and forcibly relocating them is illegal under international law. Not only this, but it is physically impossible to move over 400,000 people back to the countries they used to live in. Where they have no option to return to safely and potentially have violence and suffering inflicted upon them again.


Another humanitarian reason to oppose the closure of such large camps is that refugee camps are referred to as temporary homes for people who are displaced and have nowhere else to go until the reason they left is solved. Whilst this might be true for other camps, the majority of the two camps’ population was born there or started living at the camp at an extremely young age. These camps are homes for these people and do not have another place to return to as they simply do not come from another place. Their’ home countries’ of their parents do not want to take any action for them to move safely there.


This unique long-term migration has meant that experts, scholars, and agencies, including the UN, redefine refugee camps as more permanent settlements that eventually are integrated into host communities. This is because of the issue faced in the African camps, they do not have an option to ‘return home, and it is not beneficial for any party to keep them in temporary places shut off from the communities. This means that they were seen as guests who overstay their welcome when that is not the case at all.

Isabella Patrick


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