Amnesty International has joined the UN and others in urging Kenya to halt its plans to close the world’s largest refugee complex, arguing that forcing the 350,000 Somalis in Dadaab to return home would put their lives at risk and breach international law.
Kenya ordered the closure of the camp last week after members of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab attacked Garissa University College on 2 April, killing 148 people.
Although the Kenyan government has long viewed Dadaab as a breeding ground for al-Shabaab and often called for it to be shut, its language has become increasingly blunt in the aftermath of Garissa and the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping centre.
Last Saturday, the country’s deputy president, William Ruto, said Kenya would now change “the way America changed after 9/11”, adding: “We have asked theUN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) to relocate the refugees in three months”.
Ruto said that if the UN failed, “we shall relocate them ourselves”.
The UNHCR has described the plan as abrupt and warned that it would have “extreme humanitarian and practical consequences”.
On Thursday, Amnesty also called on Kenya to reconsider the decision and honour its responsibility to protect those within its borders.
“The attack in Garissa underlined the need for the Kenyan government to better guarantee the security of its population,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, the group’s regional director for east Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“But this must not be done by putting at risk people Kenya is duty-bound to protect.”
Amnesty says that Somalia’s government simply does not have enough control over many parts of the country.
“General violence and insecurity persists and residents have frequently been subject to both indiscriminate and targeted attacks,” it said in a statement. “If refugees are sent back to these areas, they risk human rights abuses, such as rape and killings, as well as extortion.”
The move has also been opposed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Human Rights Watch.
“Such a drastic measure in an impossibly short timeframe would deprive generations of refugees of any choices for their future,” said Charles Gaudry, MSF’s head of mission in Kenya.
“This is a move that would punish hundreds of thousands of people, forcing them to return to a country where safety and medical care is far from guaranteed, and in some places is non-existent.”
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said “unlawfully forcing almost half a million Somali refugees back home to face a real risk to their lives and freedom” would not serve the interests of justice.
She added: “Instead of scapegoating refugees, Kenya is legally obliged to protect them until it is safe for them to return, and should identify and prosecute those responsible for the killings in Garissa.”
On Wednesday, the UN called on the Kenyan government to reconsider its demands.
“The main issue is the voluntariness of returns,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl. “If these people were forced to return, it could be in breach of international law and UNHCR would not facilitate such a move.”
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Kenya is a party, prohibits forcing refugees back to areas where their life or freedom is threatened, a practice known as refoulement.
The UNHCR also says large-scale returns of refugees are still not possible in many parts of Somalia, where public services such as schools and healthcare are lacking after 20 years of conflict.
However, the agency said it was ready to work with Kenyan authorities to strengthen law enforcement at Dadaab to help protect refugees and Kenyans against possible intrusion by armed groups or “terrorist incursions” from across the border.
At its peak, Dadaab held 500,000 Somali refugees, many of whom had fled famine in 2001, said de Grujil.
“The majority of the people who are still in the camp are those who have been there for a very long time – including some of them for generations.”
Njonjo Mue, of the human rights coalition Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice, said the logistics of emptying Dadaab “boggles the mind” and could play into al-Shabaab’s hands.
“Basically, we would be handing over to al-Shabaab a ready-made army of, say, 200,000 young men who will be desperate and who will have nothing to do,” he told Reuters.
Last week, several NGOS criticised the Kenyan government’s decision to close 13 remittance companies specialising in money transfers to Somalia as part of its response to the Garissa atrocity.
The authorities, which have been condemned for their slow response to the massacre, faced further embarrassment on Tuesday after it emerged that a plane meant to transport commandos to the scene of the attack was instead being used to fly the family of a police chief back from a family holiday on the coast.