Jina Moore | BuzzFeed News World Correspondent
Kenya says the camps are a security threat, but the move comes at a time when refugees are big business.
Nairobi, Kenya, May 13 (BuzzFeed News) — Kenya recently announced it will close the world’s biggest refugee camp. It’s a move it’s threatened before, but this year, it has some unexpected leverage: Europe.
Kenya is home to about half a million refugees, most of them from neighboring Somalia, where insecurity has been the norm for decades. The world’s biggest refugee camp, Dadaab, opened in northern Kenya 25 years ago. Kenya has long wanted to reduce those refugee numbers, and nearly three years ago struck a deal with Somalia to slowly send Somalis back who were willing to go.
When Europe began panicking over its growing refugee population, Kenya took notice. A very noticeable feature of that crisis is that Europe is willing to spend cash — lots of cash — to end its refugee problems.
The European Union struck a deal with Turkey in March to send back refugees who’d sailed in rubber boats from Turkey to Greece. It promised to bear the financial burden for their care, pledging €3 billion immediately and another €3 billion when that runs out. (That’s nearly $7 billion.)
Last week, the EU made its calculations even clearer, with a proposal for fairly distributing refugees across EU member states — a proposal that included an opt-out option, called a “solidarity contribution”: €250,000 (nearly $300,000) for every refugee a member state refuses to admit.
Europe’s reluctance to accept refugees — and, presumably, the money it’s willing to pay to dodge them — has grabbed Kenyan officials’ attention.
“In Europe, rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two,” said Joseph Nkaisserry, the minister of the interior, in an address on Wednesday explaining the policy to close the camps.
Nkaisserry’s statement “directly points towards the scenes we’ve seen in Europe, with regards to how [Kenyan officials] have decided to use refugees as a bargaining chip in international politics,” said Andrew Maina, an immigration and asylum lawyer and the program officer for communications at the Refugee Council of Kenya, a Nairobi-based non-governmental organization.
“I think Kenya is borrowing a lead from a very bad example,” he said. “If the most powerful states are actually doing the same thing Kenya is doing … and they’re the ones with the moral authority of telling Kenya to stick to its international obligations, there’s the notion the international community can’t do anything about it.”
Kenya isn’t the only one taking note of Europe’s seemingly priceless appetite for avoiding refugees. One day after the EU proposed its opt-out price, a delegation of EU foreign ministers met with the government of Niger, a West African country that 150,000 people are expected to pass through on their way to Libya and, after a dangerous sea journey, to Italy, to talk about illegal immigration. The Niger government said it could help curb the problem — for around $1.1 billion.
Which means Kenya, while it’s attracting headlines right now, isn’t alone in sensing opportunity.
“The lack of leadership from Europe gives thse other countries the space to start ransoming the EU,” said Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns, an up-close look at Dadaab, and a former Human Rights Watch researcher.
Kenya’s displeasure for hosting refugees does have a long history, and — to be fair — its plan to voluntarily return some refugees was already set to expire this year.
In 2012, Kenya tried to force all refugees in the country into two camps in the north — Kakuma, near South Sudan, and Dadaab, near Somalia. In 2014, the police rounded up anyone suspected of being a refugee who didn’t have the right paperwork. As many as 4,000 people were held in a Nairobi sports stadium during the roundups, and many people reported that they had to pay bribes to be released; at least one woman died during detention.
In late 2013, Kenya formalized a three-year plan, along with the Somali government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to voluntarily return refugees. But only 14,000 people have gone back — a rate the government has long complained is too slow — and Kenya has been disappointed that international donors haven’t pledged more money for the program, and the agreement that governs those returns is set to expire in November.
Kenya thinks the refugee camps harbor terrorists, but experts and refugee aid workers dispute this.
Kenya definitely has a terrorism problem. Al Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group based in Somalia, killed nearly 70 people in an attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi three years ago. Last year, the group murdered nearly 150 students at Garissa University, in northern Kenya.
“Some of the largest terrorist attacks, such as the 2013 Westgate atrocity, have been planned and executed from Dadaab,” wrote Karanje Kibicho, a high-level security official, in a British paper on Monday.
“That’s nonsense. It’s completely not true. There’s no evidence linking any of the terror attacks in Kenya to Dadaab,” said Rawlence, who spent years in Dadaab for his book. “If you talk to police in Dadaab they’ll talk very proudly about their community policing, which was paid for by USAID and which has been very successful. The community [in Dadaab] is hostile to Al Shabaab — if Al Shabaab discovers you have a ration card, they execute you for taking food from the infidels.”
Kenya also says it’s tired of bearing the burden of refugee hosting — although most of the financial cost is actually paid by international donors.
Local Nation FM reported that Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed recently told reporters that Kenya spends 1 billion shillings (about $100 million) to run the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) each year.
Mohamed also told an audience at a recent African Union meeting in Nairobi that Kenya has “received no support from the international community for shouldering this international responsibility, needless to mention we have been hosting Refugees since the sixties.”
Neither of those statements matches publicly available information.
It’s now impossible to verify Mohamed’s figure about the DRA budget, because the Kenyan government suspended the DRA when it announced the camp closures. But an investigation by Kenyan newspaper Nation into Kenya’s current national budget showed that Kenya only allocated 111 million shillings to the DRA, down 80% from the previous year. In fact, the Nation found that the Kenyan government slashed the DRA’s budget more deeply than any other governmental arm.
And a UNHCR overview of the refugee situation in Kenya released just last month shows that $1.5 billion has been spent on the refugee situation in Kenya in the last 5 years, nearly all of which has come from international donors.
This is not the first time Kenya has said it will close the camps. Last time it issued this threat, it got $45 million more in U.S. aid.
Deputy President William Ruto demanded last April that the UN relocate Dadaab’s refugees in 90 days, “or we shall relocate them ourselves.” The demand was issued two weeks after Al Shabaab’s attack in Garissa.
The government reversed its stance a few weeks later, two days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi and announced $45 million in new aid to help deal with the refugee population.
But there’s two new reasons that experts think Kenya might be serious this time. One is a technical change on refugee status that was made quietly just a few weeks ago.
At the end of April, Kenya quietly revoked prima facie refugee status for Somalis. The revocation means that any Somali who wants refugee status would have to have their status individually assessed, a process that’s now impossible thanks to DRA’s shuttering.
Maina thinks that move, which went largely unnoticed, foreshadowed the government’s closure announcement.
“You can’t be taking people back to a country where you consistently say it’s safe and at the same time give prima facie status, which basically means, ‘We think the situation in your country is so bad we don’t even want to do an [individual] refugee status determination,’” Maina said. “Those two statements are in contradiction.”
Using the prima facie status to lay the groundwork for the announcement, Maina says, exhibits a strategy that distinguishes this announcement from past rhetoric.
“Before, they only said, ‘you have to go to the camp,’” Maina says, recalling a move in 2012 to relocate urban refugees. “Now, when you look at this situation, they’re revoking status. They’re disbanding the DRA. And they’ve given a deadline. This is actually serious. It is likely to happen.”
The other is that Kenya’s leadership is facing scrutiny about its own dealings in Somalis — and its president is staring down re-election.
Ben Rawlence, the researcher and author, thinks stoking debate about the refugee camps deflects attention from allegations that the Kenyan government is involved in financial dealings with Al Shabaab.
A November report, which Rawlence wrote for Nairobi-based Journalists for Justice, alleged collaboration between Kenyan security forces stationed in Somalia and the Al Shabaab terrorist group, with each benefitting financially from sugar and charcoal smuggling operations.
Focus on refugees also helps bolster the ruling party ahead of next year’s presidential elections, Rawlence said.
“The sine qua non of Kenyan politics is always, find a community to demonize in order to rally your supporters. The refuges and Somalis, Muslims in general, are the preferred whipping boy,” Rawlence said.
But the real difference between this year’s announcement and previous threats, Rawlence says, is “the global discussion about refugees where fascism and the breaking of international obligations is more acceptable. They’re following Europe’s lead and using Europe’s example against it.
“It’s very, very good politics,” he said. “You have to admire them.”
Refugee advocates, meanwhile, are worrying about how all this might go down — and hoping the Kenyan government will take their calls.
No one in the refugee advocacy community had any idea this plan was in the works. Even UNHCR, which runs the refugee camps and partners with the government on refugee affairs issues, learned about the closure plan on the Internet.
“Up to now, nobody in the government has been able to meet us, even though we have informally reached out to them on the phone, but we have no concrete answers on what this is,” Duke Mwancha, a UNHCR press officer, said. “The government is communicating through the media, and they’re saying different things.”
Jina Moore is the international women’s rights correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Nairobi. Moore has reported from Liberia at the height of the Ebola crisis and on women’s issues around the world.