Kenya has ordered the closure of two sprawling camps that host hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Somalia and gave the UN refugee agency – UNHCR – two weeks to present a plan to do so.
The Dadaab and the Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya host more than 410,000 people, a small proportion of whom are from South Sudan.
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Citing national security concerns, authorities in Nairobi first announced their intention to shut the Dadaab camp, which is closer to the border with Somalia than Kakuma, in 2016.
Fred Matiang’i, Kenya’s interior minister, has given the UNHCR 14 days to draw up a plan for the closure of both camps, the ministry said in a tweet, adding that there was no room for further talks on the issue.
UNHCR urged Kenya to ensure that those who need protection continue to get it, and pledged to keep engaging in a dialogue.
“The decision would have an impact on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
The Daily Nation newspaper reported that Kenyan authorities informed UNCHR on Tuesday that it would take the refugees to the border with Somalia if the camps were not closed.
Somali authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Kenyan government’s attempt to close Dadaab in 2016 came on the back of intelligence reports showing two attacks on Kenyan targets in 2013 and 2015 took place with the involvement of elements in the camps.
The plan was blocked by the high court, which called the move unconstitutional.
The camp was established three decades ago and was once the world’s largest refugee camp, which at its peak hosted over half a million people fleeing violence and drought in Somalia.
Kakuma, located in the northwest, is home to more than 190,000 refugees, some drawn from neighbouring South Sudan.
Kenya’s move comes as relations with Somalia worsen following Mogadishu cutting diplomatic ties with Nairobi last December, accusing it of interfering in its internal affairs.
Kenya’s interior ministry told Reuters news agency the move to close the camps was not related to diplomatic difficulties with Somalia.