Somali refugees living in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp pleaded on Monday for Nairobi to reconsider its demand that the United Nations relocate the camp to Somalia — a move, some say, that would breach international law, overwhelm Somalia’s government and provide the feared armed group Al-Shabab with recruits.
Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, insisted Saturday that the U.N. move the camp in northeastern Kenya across the border following the April 2 attack at a Kenyan university where Al Shabab fighters gunned down nearly 150 people.
"We have asked the UNHCR to relocate the refugees in three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves," Ruto said in a statement.
Dadaab, home to an estimated 500,000 Somalis who fled their country’s decades-long civil war, is the world’s largest refugee camp. Kenya, which is leading a military intervention against Al-Shabab in Somalia, has accused the group of hiding some of its leaders in Dadaab.
The camp’s residents, however, fear that a return to Somalia would prove dangerous given the ongoing fighting in the country.
“Going back to Somalia is not an option for us, even the leaders of the Somali government are not safe and have to travel in tanks belonging to peacekeepers,” Khalif Ali Sokor, a camp resident, told Al Jazeera.
Saturday’s call is not the first time the Kenyan government has tried to repatriate Somali refugees. In 2013, it signed an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency and Somalia for the repatriation of hundreds of Somalis, who returned voluntarily.
Any further repatriation must abide by this agreement to avoid violating international law, but some analysts say national security concerns could drive Nairobi to renege on the deal.
“They may say that their national security interests trump the need to abide by the international convention they signed,” said Joshua Meservey, assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Kenya has faced increasing violence from Al-Shabab. In Sept. 2013, the armed group laid siege to Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people. In early April, the attack on a university in Garissa left 148 people dead.
Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011 and, with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), have cleared much of the country of Al-Shabab fighters. Those military interventions are the armed group’s justification for the attacks on Kenya.
The desire to repatriate the Somali refugees was one of the reasons for the Kenyan invasion, said Meservey, but the move would exacerbate tensions between Kenya’s political elite and Muslim groups that support the refugees.
“The feeling is very much that these are overwhelmingly Muslim refugees, and the Christian government is trying to kick them out of the country,” he said. “They’re scapegoating them for the government’s own security failings.”
Mohamed Abdi, a refugee at the camp, said moving the camp inside Somalia would boost Al-Shabab’s recruitment efforts among the camp’s impoverished men, whose livelihoods would be threatened if their homes are displaced.
“If we are returned against our will, then thousands of young men among us will join the group. They will have no option but to join the group, it’s the only thing that will give them relevance,” he said.
The logistical challenges of relocating more than 500,000 people who have lived in Kenya for 20 years would also put an additional burden on the Somali central government that’s struggling to keep Mogadishu within their control.
“Moving back impoverished people, with no resources and no way to support them, that’s an immense strain on the Somali Central Government, which AMISON is trying to bolster,” Meservey said. "The logistics are overwhelming."
Mohammed Adow contributed reporting. With wire services.