Refugees breathe a sigh of re­lief

Kenyan court’s rul­ing in en­sur­ing the Dadaab camp re­mains open is a wel­come, yet rare, oc­cur­rence


LAST week, the Con­sti­tu­tional and Hu­man Rights Divi­sion of the High Court in Nairobi, Kenya, ruled that the gov­ern­ment-or­dered clo­sure of the world’s big­gest refugee camp, Dadaab, was un­con­sti­tu­tional.

In tur­bu­lent times, when it comes to the global refugee cri­sis, the af­fir­ma­tion of the rule of law and the pro­mo­tion and pro­tec­tion of refugee rights is a wel­come, yet rare, oc­cur­rence.

Dadaab is a semi-arid town in the Kenyan county of Garissa; it is also home to roughly 329 811 refugees housed in five camps or­gan­ised by the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The ma­jor­ity of its in­hab­i­tants are So­ma­lis flee­ing per­se­cu­tion and strife in their home­land. Three of the first five camps, Da­ga­ha­ley, Ha­gadera and Ifo I, were con­structed in 1992; the last two – Ifo II and Kam­bioos – were opened in 2011 af­ter 130 000 new refugees from So­ma­lia ar­rived.

So­ma­lia has been rav­aged by civil war, drought and famine leav­ing its in­hab­i­tants with no choice but to flee.

Life in the Dadaab is not easy, with chal­lenges re­lated to over­crowd­ing and poor se­cu­rity; yet, de­spite the hard­ships, it re­mains home to thou­sands of refugees as it caters for ba­sic needs.

The Kenyan gov­ern­ment, cit­ing the blos­som­ing of ter­ror­ism as a pri­mary rea­son, sought the clo­sure of Dadaab and the repa­tri­a­tion of So­ma­lis by way of gov­ern­ment or­der in May 2016. The gov­ern­ment be­lieves that the ex­trem­ist Is­lamic ter­ror­ist group al-Shabaab is us­ing Dadaab to re­cruit mem­bers and as a base to co-or­di­nate at­tacks. The at­tacks on West­gate Mall and Garissa were, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment, prime ex­am­ples of this.

The West­gate Mall at­tack in Septem­ber, 2013 left 67 peo­ple dead. The April 2015 Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege at­tack claimed the lives of 148 stu­dents. Al-Shabaab claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for both at­tacks.

Other rea­sons for clo­sure in­cluded the im­mense en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic bur­den placed on Kenya due to the pres­ence of vast num­bers of refugees. The ex­is­tence of hu­man traf­fick­ing and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of arms were also raised as jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the clo­sure of the camp.

Hu­man rights groups – Kenya Na­tional Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Rights, and Ki­tuo Cha She­ria – chal­lenged the clo­sure or­der in court. The judge found the clo­sure plans were il­le­gal and dis­crim­i­na­tory; and also that the clo­sure and return of refugees to So­ma­lia would vi­o­late the long-stand­ing prin­ci­ple of non-re­foule­ment, which pro­hibits the forced return of refugees to a place where they will con­tinue to face grave dan­ger.

The UNHCR 2015 sta­tis­tics paint a grim pic­ture, with the global num­ber of refugees and in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons at a stag­ger­ing 65.3 mil­lion. This is the largest fig­ure ever re­ported: 53% come from Syria, Afghanistan and So­ma­lia and half of all the recorded refugees in 2015 were un­der the age of 18.

Other source coun­tries in­clude South Su­dan, Su­dan, Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, Eritrea, Colom­bia and Myan­mar.

UN Sta­tis­tics also in­di­cate that 29% of the world’s dis­placed per­sons are be­ing hosted in Africa, with 6% hosted in Europe. The Mid­dle East and North Africa host the largest num­ber with 39% and the Amer­i­cas host 12%; while 14% are hosted in Asia and the Pa­cific.

While the is­sues raised by the Kenyan gov­ern­ment, and other gov­ern­ments faced with ever-grow­ing num­bers of refugees war­rant con­cern and should be ad­dressed, it should be done with due re­gard to hu­man rights and with the pro­tec­tion of the vul­ner­a­ble in mind.

Refugees are flee­ing the worst pos­si­ble atroc­i­ties and re­quire sup­port and as­sis­tance. Deny­ing the ex­is­tence of op­por­tunis­tic ter­ror­ists seek­ing to abuse the refugee cri­sis would be naïve, but paint­ing all refugees as ter­ror­ists is un­con­struc­tive and mis­guided. It also con­sti­tutes a form of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment and se­ri­ously jeop­ar­dises the lives of in­no­cent refugees.

The as­sump­tion that the clo­sure of refugee camps, and a pol­icy of re­fus­ing to ac­cept refugees, will stop ter­ror­ist at­tacks is also of lit­tle con­struc­tive value in the fight against ter­ror­ism.

The Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Counter- ter­ror­ism and Hu­man Rights, Ben Emmerson, found the per­cep­tion that refugee sta­tus is used to pro­vide some sort of safe haven for ter­ror­ists to be “an­a­lyt­i­cally and sta­tis­ti­cally un­founded”.

In 2016, in the Euro­pean Union Ter­ror­ism Sit­u­a­tion and Trend Re­port, Europol also noted that there was “no ev­i­dence that ter­ror­ists were sys­tem­at­i­cally us­ing refugee flows to en­ter Europe”. There is also lit­tle ev­i­dence to sug­gest that refugees are some­how “more prone to rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion than oth­ers”.

In­deed, na­tions host­ing refugees face great bur­dens, but con­struc­tive so­lu­tions that pro­mote and re­spect hu­man rights should be en­gaged. Mea­sures to stop the con­flicts that cause peo­ple to flee also re­quire ded­i­cated ac­tion. Un­til then, it falls to the hu­man rights de­fend­ers and courts to pro­mote the rule of law and pro­tect the rights of refugees.


REFUGEES AT RISK: So­mali refugees walk among huts at the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Last week, a Kenyan court de­clared il­le­gal a gov­ern­ment or­der to close the camp. ZUYDAM / AP VAN

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