Newly arrived Somali refugees wait outside a registration center at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya in July 2011. A massive influx of Somalis were displaced by famine in 2011, and many left for Kenya.Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
Kenya’s interior minister said Friday that the country's refugee camps were havens for Somali extremists and called for hundreds of thousands of refugees to return home, amplifying anti-Somali sentiment sparked by the Westgate mall attack in September.
“Some of these refugees have abused our hospitality and kindness to plan and launch terror attacks from the safety of the refugee camps. This cannot and should not be allowed to continue,” said Joseph Ole Lenku, noting that Kenya had “welcomed with open arms” refugees from neighboring countries. There are an estimated 630,000 refugees in Kenya, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The interior minister’s comments come a week after Kenyan security chiefs submitted a report to the National Assembly indicating that the Sept. 21 Westgate attack by the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali group Al-Shabab was orchestrated and coordinated out of the Dadaab Somalian refugee camp. The siege left at least 67 dead and injured hundreds more.
Since the attack on Westgate, calls for the expulsion of Kenya’s more than half a million Somali refugees have echoed in the halls of parliament and throughout the media, as Kenyans contend that national security is threatened by their presence.
“It’s confirmed that quite a number of these crooks planned this terror attack from a refugee camp,” National Security committee chairman Asman Kamama told Kenya’s Daily Nation last Thursday, when the report was released. “Go back to Somalia or ask the United Nations to take them to another country. We don’t have a pact with Somalia on refugees.”
Unlike some legislators, Lenku on Friday stopped short of calling for the Dadaab camp to be closed and for its residents to be evicted immediately, but he did note that his government was “working closely with the government of Somalia and UNHCR to ensure that the repatriation process is as smooth and humane as possible.”
He also had harsh words for Kenyan officials accused of helping Somali refugees circumvent the law, noting that a purge was under way in the immigration service. Fifteen officers have been fired for issuing “Kenyan identity documents to illegal immigrants, thereby endangering national security,” he said.
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, was established more than two decades ago when thousands began fleeing the civil war in neighboring Somalia. The camp has long been a source of controversy, with allegations that it has been used for the smuggling of goods and weapons from Somalia.
While over 400,000 live there today, scores of refugees have opted to leave the overcrowded, underfunded camp and move to urban areas like Nairobi.
Refugee mobility was crippled in December 2012 when Kenya, citing security concerns, issued a decree mandating the return of urban refugees to UNHCR-run camps, a sign that Kenya was beginning to wash its hands of the prolonged Somali crisis.
A report from Refugees International found that one consequence of that decree, which was not strictly enforced, was a spike in harassment, abuse and extortion of Somalis by the police, who were deputized to search houses indiscriminately, often demanding bribes.
Somalia’s ambassador in Nairobi, Mohamed Ali Nur, has come to the defense of his beleaguered countrymen in exile by noting that they are the victims of unspeakable violence.
“I really do not like when I see in the media, in the newspapers, saying that the refugees are themselves terrorists,” he said on Tuesday, calling refugees “innocent people.”
“I can understand the feeling of the Kenyan government and the people of Kenya the burden that these refugees have placed on them," he told The Daily Nation. "But there are rules and laws that govern international refugees which say that refugees cannot be returned forcefully to where they came from.”
The October election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and the fragile but promising lull in violence in Somalia have rekindled hopes that hundreds of thousands of refugees might finally leave Kenya for good, but the UNHCR maintains that Somalia is not safe enough for large-scale repatriation.
The agency announced last week that more than 30,000 Somali refugees had returned home from camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, but it emphasized that the movement was “seasonal or temporary.”
Refugee-advocacy groups have likewise tempered optimism about Somalis’ returning home, with some saying such a move could be counterproductive.
“Forcing them back to a country still racked by widespread violence and insecurity would not only breach Kenya’s obligations under international law but could inflame further instability in Somalia,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Gerry Simpson said in a statement Tuesday.
There are also those who fear the government might get out of hand in its efforts to stamp out extremism.
Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola warned in an opinion article earlier this month of a slippery slope, with the government possibly cracking down on rights in the name of national security.
“The rush to be seen to be active in defense of Kenya can lead to shortsighted policies that may make the situation worse,” she said, questioning the wisdom of evicting half a million Somalis.
Nevertheless, Kenyans worry that undermonitored refugees in Dadaab and unregistered refugees in Nairobi pose national-security risks that must be addressed.
Though Kenyan aid groups caution against a domestic overreaction, they are pushing for the government to do everything in its power to ward off a repeat of Westgate.
Legal-aid group Kituo Sheria is among them, and earlier this month it released a statement from its deputy executive director, Laban Osoro, urging the government to “tighten the law” on immigration and refugees in Kenya.
In the statement, Osoro posed the question on everyone's minds, “Can asylum or refugee status and Kenya security coexist, or for Kenya to be safe (must) refugees go?”
With wire services