World’s Largest Refugee Camp Avoids Closure

The world’s largest refugee camp has escaped closure this week. The Kenyan government originally planned to close the refugee camp in Dabaab, Kenya by November, 2016. The government then postponed this closure for six months. A successful high court challenge to the decision means the camp will remain open, providing refuge to Somali refugees. The court found that the internal security minister had failed to consult with the people who would be directly affected by the decision, violating Kenya’s constitution. The constitution states that people have a right to fair legal proceedings. The court also held that the decision to close the camp was discriminatory and in violation of international treaties the Kenyan government signed. The decision to close the refugee camp was based on claims from the government that it is a drain on the national economy, and that it was being used by al-Shabaab militants as a base to launch attacks within Kenya. The high court’s ruling also reversed the government’s decision to close Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs.

The camp at Dabaab is home to an estimated 340,000 people fleeing violence, persecution and civil war in Somalia. The camp was originally opened in 1991 to provide a temporary place of refuge for people fleeing the violence and civil war that erupted after the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime. In the years following the coup, Somalia descended into anarchy as rival groups and warlords fought for control of the country. In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control of Mogadishu, the country’s capital. Subsequently, Ethiopian forces ousted the ICU. Between 2007 and 2011, African Union forces occupied the country and an internationally recognized government was elected with international help. Although Somalia is inching towards stability, with the first democratic elections since Barre’s regime took power in 1967 held in 2012, and the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo in February 2017, the country is still dealing with conflict due to al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is an off-shoot of the ICU and is an Islamist Jihadist group aligned with Al-Qaeda. Moreover, Al Jazeera reports that Somali government forces and al-Shabaab regularly engage in armed conflicts.

Somalia’s government is pleased with the result of the high court challenge. The Somali ambassador to the United States was critical of the announcement of the closure of the camp in June. He lamented the potential damage to the relationship of the two states as a result of Kenya’s decision. The ambassador also called on the 2013 Tripartite Agreement made between Kenya, Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regarding the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in his condemnation of Kenya’s decision.

The court’s decision comes as a welcome relief in a time when the international mood towards refugees is increasingly hostile. The judge’s decision that the original closure order is discriminatory and in violation of international agreements gives hope that the same decision will not be made in the near future, with the government declaring that it has consulted the affected people. Amnesty International released a statement in the wake of the decision, calling for durable resettlement solutions for the refugees including increased efforts to integrate refugees into the local community.

Anton Anin