Kenya’s government has said it told the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) it will close two refugee camps hosting more than 400,000 people by June 30 next year.
The announcement by the interior ministry on Thursday followed a meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi about the status of the Dadaab and Kakuma camps. Most of the 433,765 refugees and asylum seekers living at the settlements are from Somalia and South Sudan.
“A joint team comprising officials from the Kenyan government and the (UN Refugee) agency will therefore be formed to finalise and implement a road map on the next steps towards a humane management of refugees in both camps,” a joint statement said.
Kenya has formally communicated to @Refugees its decision to close Dadaab & Kakuma camps by 30 June 2022. Among the precursory activities in GoK's roadmap is repatriation of refugees to countries of origin & socioeconomic integration of some of them through Work/Residence Permits pic.twitter.com/KuUSrjkLkE
— Ministry of Interior (@InteriorKE) April 29, 2021
Earlier this month, UNHCR presented Kenya with what it said were “sustainable rights-based measures” for finding solutions for the refugees’ longstanding displacement.
This followed a two-week ultimatum given by Kenya’s interior minister for the agency to come up with a road map to close the decades-old camps.
A push by Kenya’s government to shut down the camps sooner was blocked after the country’s High Court issued a temporary 30-day order following a legal challenge filed by former presidential aspirant Peter Gichira that sought to block the closure.
UNHCR’s “sustainable and rights-based measures” to find a solution for the displacement of the refugees include voluntary return for refugees in safety and dignity, departures to third countries under various arrangements and alternative stay options in Kenya for certain refugees from East African Community, or EAC, countries.
“We are serious about completing the repatriation program which we started in 2016, in full view of our international obligations and our domestic responsibility. We therefore reiterate our earlier position to close both Dadaab and Kakuma camps by 30th of June, 2022,” Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i said, according to the statement.
“I believe that the government and people of Kenya will continue to show their generous hospitality towards refugees as they have done for nearly three decades, while we carry on discussions on a strategy to find the most durable, appropriate and rights-based solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers residing in the refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma,” Grandi said.
Refugees from East African countries will be given the option of being issued a work permit for free so that they can integrate into Kenyan communities or return to their country of origin, Matiang’i said.
Kenya has said the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somalia border is a source of insecurity. Some officials have argued that it has been used as a recruiting ground for the armed group al-Shabab and a base for launching violent attacks inside Kenya, but officials have not provided conclusive proof.
Kenya has been saying for years that it would like to close Daadab, near Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia and which hosts nearly 200,000 mostly Somali refugees.
A Kenyan court in 2017 blocked the closure of the Dadaab camp, saying it was not safe for refugees to return to Somalia.
The Kenyan government’s latest demand is seen as retaliation against Somalia for insisting on pursuing a case at the International Court of Justice over a disputed maritime border between the two countries. Kenya wants the case settled out of court.
Kakuma, home to more than 190,000 refugees, is located in Kenya’s northwest. Dadaab is in eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border, but many Somalis have moved between the two camps.
Dadaab was established 30 years ago and was once the world’s largest refugee camp, which, at its peak, hosted more than half a million people fleeing violence and drought in Somalia.
Speaking to Al Jazeera earlier this month, residents in both camps had urged the Kenyan government to abandon its plans.
“It’s very terrifying because we do not know the next step, like where are we going to go from here,” David Omot, an Ethiopian who has lived in both Kakuma and Dadaab since 2005, said of the closure order. “Where will we go? Back home we still have some insecurity, there are still some problems that people are facing, especially the youths.”
Austin Baboya, a South Sudanese 26-year-old based in Kakuma, said he has not known any other home than a refugee camp.
“I don’t know if the [Kenyan] government have sat down and considered the lives of people living in the camp or they just wake up and make those decisions,” Baboya said, calling on UNHCR and international donors to help find a solution.
“Before the camp was open very many people lost lives. Very many people fled their home countries … They have found a place to call home and I don’t think many of them are willing to go back.”