Residents of Kenya’s two largest refugee camps have used terms like “terrifying,” “shocking,” and “a rejection of humanity” to describe their terror and despair at the news that the government is attempting to shut down the settlements immediately.
On March 24, Kenyan Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i gave the UNHCR two weeks to come up with a proposal to close the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, which together house 410,000 people from over a dozen countries, including Somalis, South Sudanese, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, Ugandans, and Burundians.
Otherwise, authorities warned, refugees would be forced to travel to Somalia’s border. Kenya’s interior ministry described this as a “ultimatum” and said there was no ground for further talks in a tweet.
“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,” said Austin Baboya, a South Sudanese based in Kakuma. “Right now [across] the entire camp, the information has caused a panic and very many people have lost hope,” added Baboya, who, at 26, has not known any other home than a refugee camp.
In response to Kenya’s announcement, the UNHCR expressed gratitude for the Kenyan government’s generosity in hosting so many refugees for so long (Dadaab was established 30 years ago), but expressed concern about the effect of the decision on refugee security in Kenya, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the April 6 deadline, the agency said it would continue talks with Kenyan officials, urging the government to “ensure that any decisions allow for suitable and permanent solutions to be found and that those who continue to need security are able to obtain it.”
Kenya’s government attempted to close Dadaab in 2016, after intelligence reports suggested the camps were linked to attacks on Kenyan targets in 2013 and 2015. Kenya’s high court ordered the closure to be halted.
“I felt devastated when I heard that the Kenyan government is threatening to shut down the two camps, said Hibo Mohamed, a 24-year-old from Somalia who has lived in Kakuma for 10 years.
She said she sees Somalia as an “unstable country which is still experiencing terror attacks over and over again”, adding that “Kakuma has become a home to me, where I found peace”.