On Thursday, Kenya’s High Court blocked a government directive to close the Dadaab refugee camp, in operation since 1991 and considered the largest refugee camp in the world. The government wants to close the camp because it says the Somalia-based terrorist organization al-Shabaab has been using it as a base.
“The camp had lost its humanitarian nature and had become a haven for terrorism and other illegal activities,” said Kenyan government spokesman Eric Kiraithe, as quoted by the BBC. “The lives of Kenyans matter. Our interest in this case, and in the closure of Dadaab refugee camp, remains to protect the lives of Kenyans.”
The High Court ruled that the government’s action “specifically targeting Somali refugees” was “an act of group persecution, illegally discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional.”
The Kenyan government said it would appeal the decision in a statement posted on Twitter and quoted by CNN:
The closure of Dadaab Camp has always drawn varying interest and opinions, both nationally and internationally. However, we as a Government have the cardinal responsibility of providing security for all Kenyans.
You will be reminded that the key reason for the closure of the camp was that it had become the launch pad for various terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab.
The camp had lost its humanitarian nature, and had become a haven for terrorism and other illegal activities.
For us a government, Kenya will always come first. The lives of Kenyans matter. Our interest in this case, and in the closure of Dadaab Refugee Camp, remains to protect the lives of Kenyans. It is for this reason that we shall be strongly appealing the decision by the High Court.
The Kenyan government went on to note that over 51,000 refugees have already left the camp voluntarily and returned to Somalia, as the political situation stabilizes following recent elections.
That statement should convey a sense of how large, and old, the Dadaab camp is. About 260,000 people current live there, according to CNN’s estimate, and some families have been in residence for over 20 years, while civil war raged in Somalia.
The New York Times concedes that Kenya does have a deadly terrorist problem with the Islamist killers of al-Shabaab but judges “the evidence is mixed” for how central Dadaab is to the crisis.
Contrary to the government statement about voluntary repatriation to Somalia moving at an encouraging pace, the New York Times states that “diplomats, United Nations agencies, and human rights groups have told the Kenyans that forcing the refugees to return to Somalia would be a violation of international law.”
“Today is a historic day for more than a quarter of a million refugees who were at risk of being forcefully returned to Somalia, where they would have been at serious risk of human rights abuses,” Amnesty International announced after the High Court ruling.
The U.S. government is among the donor nations that have threatened to withhold foreign aid to Kenya if it closes the Dadaab camp and ejects the refugees. The NYT mentions that over 9,000 Somali refugees were relocated to the United States last year, many of them veterans of Dadaab.