Kenya will miss world’s largest refugee camp

So­mali ter­ror fears force out 350,000

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY TONNY ONYULO

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, KENYA | As dawn breaks in this dusty and sprawl­ing set­tle­ment of 350,000 peo­ple, res­i­dents of the world’s largest refugee camp trek along main roads, car­ry­ing bags as they head to the mar­kets to open up for busi­ness fol­low­ing early-morn­ing prayers.

Shop own­ers hawk cell­phones, cloth­ing, goat meat, milk and other staples in the hu­mid air scented by spiced tea and diesel. The mar­ket, run by refugees, is thriv­ing, part of a bustling, mas­sive pop-up “city” that over the years has be­come a re­gional com­mer­cial hub, but one that the Kenyan gov­ern­ment now wants to dis­man­tle.

In the face of in­tense crit­i­cism from Somalia and in­ter­na­tional bod­ies, Kenyan In­te­rior Min­is­ter Joseph Nkaisserry an­nounced last month that Nairobi will close what is now the refugee camp at Dadaab and repa­tri­ate the mostly So­mali refugees, say­ing the mas­sive set­tle­ment har­bors ter­ror­ists.

Dadaab lies about 60 miles from Garissa Uni­ver­sity in north­east­ern Kenya, where 147 peo­ple — in­clud­ing 142 stu­dents — were killed last year in an at­tack by mil­i­tant Somalia-based Is­lamist group al-Shabab. The group for years has at­tacked Kenyan tar­gets in re­tal­i­a­tion for Kenyan sol­diers fight­ing them in their home base.

“Due to Kenya’s na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est, the gov­ern­ment has de­cided that host­ing of refugees has to come to an end,” Mr. Nkaisserry said. “The gov­ern­ment ac­knowl­edges that this de­ci­sion will have ad­verse ef­fects on the lives of refugees. … The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must col­lec­tively take re­spon­si­bil­ity [for them].”

The United Na­tions’ lead refugee agency has urged Kenya to de­lay the clo­sure, warn­ing that send­ing So­mali refugees back to their home­land, still rife with in­sta­bil­ity, would be un­safe and in­hu­mane. But just this week, Kenyan of­fi­cials said U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon had ac­qui­esced to the de­ci­sion to close Dadaab in a pri­vate meet­ing in Brus­sels.

“It is now an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cepted fact that the clo­sure … is go­ing to be done, and the refugees have said they are not op­posed to it,” For­eign Af­fairs Cabi­net Sec­re­tary Amina Mo­hamed told al­, adding that 14,000 refugees had al­ready been flown home to Somalia.

But some warn that clos­ing Dadaab will have a clear and neg­a­tive im­pact on Kenyan so­ci­ety and its econ­omy.

“The gov­ern­ment of Kenya is go­ing to de­stroy this [re­gion] if they close all camps and repa­tri­ate refugees,” said Bashir Ab­dikarir, a So­mali and a mem­ber of one of Dadaab’s busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tions at Ifo camp, one of five that make up the sprawl­ing Dadaab com­plex.

“Most busi­nesses here are run by refugees,” he said. “They will de­stroy our busi­nesses and de­stroy their city.”

The camp was ini­tially es­tab­lished as a pro­vi­sional haven for 90,000 refugees flee­ing the 1991 clan war­fare in Somalia that even­tu­ally ousted Pres­i­dent Siad Barre and led to 20-plus years of in­sta­bil­ity and war­fare. It is now a bustling com­plex of five camps, boast­ing makeshift cine­mas and soc­cer leagues, busi­nesses, schools, hospi­tals and even a grave­yard. It also has elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives in a lo­cal coun­cil and a lo­cal se­cu­rity force.

Dadaab is not of­fi­cially counted as a city. But if it were, it would be the coun­try’s third largest af­ter Nairobi and Mom­basa, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. If it were an in­de­pen­dent coun­try in Africa, it would be larger than the Sey­chelles, Sao Tome and Principe — and its pop­u­la­tion would top 11 African cap­i­tals.

“Dadaab is not just a camp, but it’s also a com­mer­cial hub, it’s a city in its own,” said Mr. Ab­dikarir. “The camp pro­vides ser­vices and a ready mar­ket for res­i­dents and a huge tax re­turn to the Kenyan gov­ern­ment. We pay more tax than lo­cals.”

Com­mer­cial hub

Dadaab in­jects an es­ti­mated $14 mil­lion into the Kenyan econ­omy an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to a World Bank re­port last year. Another re­port by the gov­ern­ments of Nor­way and Den­mark puts the con­tri­bu­tion at twice that fig­ure.

At the same time, the World Bank re­port said com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties in the camp boost the re­gional econ­omy. In Dadaab there are hun­dreds of shop­ping cen­ters, kiosks, taxi and bus ser­vices and ho­tels. The host com­mu­nity earned some $1.8 mil­lion from the sale of live­stock alone to refugees, an­a­lysts es­ti­mate.

The camp sits in one of the poor­est re­gions in Kenya, a bright spot of­fer­ing em­ploy­ment for refugees and lo­cals. As a re­sult, the im­pend­ing clo­sure has many wor­ried.

“I have been de­pend­ing on this camp to earn a liv­ing,” said Dhublawe Ibrahim, a fa­ther of four and a Kenyan taxi driver who works in Dadaab. “We’ll ob­vi­ously lose our jobs when the gov­ern­ment closes the camp, and life will be­come hard.”

Hal­ima Gure, 40, who owns a cloth­ing shop at Ha­gadera mar­ket, one of the big­gest in Dadaab, said the re­gion will lack ser­vices if the refugees are repa­tri­ated.

“Most lo­cals in this north­ern re­gion come here to buy clothes and food in bulk,” said Ms. Gure, a mother of 10, who ar­rived at the camp in 2012 af­ter al-Shabab mil­i­tants over­ran her na­tive Gedo re­gion in Somalia. “The mar­ket is an eco­nomic hub for res­i­dents here, and it’s run mostly by refugees. When we leave there will be no busi­ness here.”

Many in the re­gion com­plain that the gov­ern­ment be­lieves only So­ma­lis — the ma­jor­ity of the refugees in the camp — would be af­fected by the clo­sure. They say that fails to take into ac­count that over the more than two decades of the camp’s ex­is­tence, in­ter­mar­riage be­tween Kenyans and the refugees has be­come nor­mal, which has in turn pro­moted the growth of the camp, said Na­zlin Umar Fazaldin Ra­jput, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and chair of Na­tional Mus­lim Coun­cil of Kenya.

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