Kenya says it will delay by six months the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, the world's largest, after calls by the UN and aid groups to postpone it on humanitarian grounds.
Dadaab, currently home to an estimated 350,000, was opened in 1991 as a temporary shelter for people fleeing civil war in neighbouring Somalia. Yet, prolonged violence and insecurity turned it over the years into a sprawling tent city.
Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya's interior minister, said on Wednesday that the delay follows a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to push back the camp's dismantling, originally planned for this month.
It has now been pushed back to May, he said.
"The government has accepted the request to extend the deadline for the completion of the repatriation of Somali refugees and the eventual closure of Dadaab refugee complex by six months," he told a news conference.
Nkaissery said a comprehensive repatriation programme would be rolled out next month at the camp.
"The repatriation will continue to be carried out in a humane, safe and dignified manner," he said.
|The Kenyan government opened the Dadaab in 1991 as a temporary solution to the civil war in Somalia [Thomas Mukoya/Reuters]
In May, the government cited security concerns as it announced that the vast camp in northeast Kenya near the Somali border would be shut down.
Al Jazeera's Catherine Soi, reporting from Kenya's capital Nairobi, said the announcement about the delay did not come as a surprise.
"There has been a lot of international pressure for the government to reverse the decision to close the camp," she said.
"But it has also been apparrent for a while now that it was logistically impossible to close the camp.
"And I think it will still be impossible, come May, the new deadline."
READ MORE: Refugees stranded in Somalia after Kenya eviction
The process of repatriation to Somalia is voluntary, explained our correspondent. An estimated 18,000 have returned this year, including 10,000 since the announcement of the camp's closure in May.
"This is a very, very slow process and it is going to be very difficult to close the camp even in May next year," Soi said.
'Forcible returns are illegal'
Since sending troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2011, Kenya has come under repeated attacks from the al-Shabab armed group.
Nairobi has taken a tough stance, claiming the Dadaab camp acts as "a terrorist training ground" for al-Shabab fighters, and has repeatedly said in public that it will remove all Somali refugees from the country by the end of the year.
READ MORE: Somali refugees in Kenya fear being repatriated
In September, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the repatriation of Somalis from Dadaab violated international standards, and that refugees were returning home involuntarily only to face persecution and hunger.
The Kenyan government dismissed HRW's report.
"Delaying the closure of the camp by six months is certainly better than deporting the refugees in two weeks. But with the new date ... the refugees will continue to feel that they must leave," said Gerry Simpson, a researcher at HRW.
"Forcible returns are illegal. Kenya must end its threats to close Dadaab and the UNHCR and donors must press Kenya to publicly reassure the Somali refugees and tell them that they are welcome in Kenya until they are able to return home safely."
|At the moment around 350,000 people are residing in the Dadaab refugee camp, which was designed to host only 90,000 [Dai Kurokawa/EPA]
Refugees will be returning to a country that already has more than one million people displaced from their homes, where five million lack enough food and where African and Somali forces are still fighting al-Shabab.
The vast majority of Dadaab residents fled Somalia's more than two-decade-long conflict. Many remain fearful of returning to a country where insecurity remains rife.
"We were in the camps very recently and spoke to people who are very afraid to go back," said Al Jazeera's Soi. "They fear for their lives. Some told us that they don't know how they are going to access basic needs such as health services.
READ MORE: Kenya's plan to shut Dadaab refugee camp criticised
"And then there are people who have been in the camp since the 1990s and they say what are we going back to? We don't have anything in Somalia."
There are also reports of refugees who have been repatriated but chose to go back to the camp for security reasons.
"We spoke to some teenage brothers who were repatriated back to Somalia," Soi said.
"They said they went back and only five days later their father was slaughtered by al-Shabab so they had to run.
"Stories like that create even more fear in the camp."
Source: Al Jazeera News And News Agencies