Kenya has threatened to close down all refugee camps within its territory and send all refugees, all 600,000 of them, back to their home countries.
This is not the first time that the Kenyan government has announced to make the country a refugee-free zone. But previous threats have been squarely aimed at increasing international funding for supporting the refugee population, which largely originates from neighboring Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia. But this time, many observers think that the government is serious, as it has already shuttered the government agency responsible for dealing with refugees.
Kenya has been a hostile environment for refugees for a few years now, in many ways providing the template for the European reaction to the massive influx of Syrian refugees. Kenya, a developing nation, has some legitimate concerns: housing and feeding such a massive refugee population has economic ramifications and Kenyan security services has identified camps like Dadaab, the world’s largest, as a staging ground for terrorist attacks by the Somali group al-Shabab.
For these reasons, the refugee question has become highly politicized. And with presidential elections coming up in August 2017, it doesn’t take a great amount of cynicism to see this as a campaign move by President Kenyatta.
The Kenyan government has of course to answer for their own responsibility for the ongoing violence in Somalia. Kenyan troops invaded the southern part of their neighbor in 2011, intent on creating a buffer zone towards the notoriously unstable neighbor in anticipation of the development of a major pipeline and infrastructure project along the common border. But instead of working with the federal Somali government, Kenya has chosen to support a local strong man, Sheikh Madobe and push for the autonomy of the buffer zone, greatly compromising efforts to unify Somalia after decades of civil war.
The Kenyan army has also failed to expel al-Shabab from the southern parts of Somalia. And Kenyan officers have been implicated in profiting from sugar and charcoal trafficking, al-Shabab’s major source of income. Scapegoating the Somali refugee and immigrant population has also been used to deflect from the incapability of Kenyan security forces to prevent and contain terror attacks. In contrast to statements by the Kenyan government, many of the local operatives of al-Shabab are Kenyan citizens and wouldn’t be affected by an expulsion of the refugee population.
These arguments of course won’t sway the Kenyan government. Western pressure and money would, though. But it is questionable if the E.U. and U.S. can muster the motivation and resources to do so. Both powers face highly controversial debates over refugees and immigration domestically and have not reacted to increased refugee populations with commensurate funding.
So what would happen if Kenya actually does close down the camps? One scenario would be that a significant part of the refugee population stays in Kenya, but moves within the country to find ways and means to support itself. But this outcome would actually be worse for the Kenyan government than the status quo. It would loose the ability to effectively control and supply these refugees and given Kenya’s inclination to nasty intercommunal conflicts over land rights, having several hundred thousand people roaming the country in search for a place to settle down would be a recipe for disaster.
The government’s only priority can therefore be to expel these people. As no other country in the region will be willing to accept more than half a million refugees, their countries of origin are the only option. But neither Somalia, nor South Sudan have overcome the instability and conflicts that have motivated these people to flee in the first place. And without a well-organized and prepared effort, simply herding people back over the border will doom many of them to misery and death because they will have no means of supporting themselves.
To be clear: Kenya, like other African countries with considerable refugee populations, should have earned our respect for providing shelter to such a large number of refugees for a considerable length of time. But despite the challenges associated with this, giving up now is simply not an option. Both international law and basic human decency leave only one response to the Kenyan government’s threats: Suck it up. And think about your own potential to alleviate the conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. There’s a lot of it.
But the international community has to accept responsibility as well. The easiest is financial: overall funding for all 2016 humanitarian appeals is currently at only 22 percent of the required $14.7 billion (a mere 0.4 percent of U.S. federal spending). Dedicating only a fraction of the world’s military expenditure to humanitarian assistance would reduce many of the problems that countries like Kenya face.
But there is also a political responsibility. With the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons the highest it has been since the end of the Second World War, wealthy industrialized nations have welcomed only a fraction of those in need world wide. The overwhelming majority have found refuge in countries of the global South. All countries should therefore re-examine their capacity to accept more victims of war, violence and displacement.