On May 6, 2016, the Kenyan government announced its decision to close all refugee camps in Kenya and stop hosting refugees, a measure which would have affected an estimated 600,000 individuals countrywide at the time. This announcement followed several similar attempts over the past few years, suggesting increasing asylum fatigue in one of the leading refugee-hosting countries in the world. In making this decision, the Kenyan government cited security concerns, the cost of providing asylum to long-term refugees, and a lack of attention from the international community to the Somali refugee crisis. Kenya later clarified that the decision specifically concerned the Dadaab Refugee Complex, situated near its border with Somalia and then hosting 341,574 mainly Somali refugees. Dadaab is one of the largest and most protracted refugee camp situations in the world, hosting a population of 250,546 as of March 2017, second only to the Bidi Bidi settlement in Uganda, which hosts over 270,000 refugees.
The Dadaab complex represents the humanitarian community’s best efforts to provide protection and assistance to a refugee population in need. However, it also exemplifies the negative impact of long-term dependence on humanitarian aid. Many refugees are not able to plan for a future in or after Dadaab. Such hopelessness is one reason why hundreds of thousands of refugees in similar conditions—including Afghans, Eritreans, and Syrians—have increasingly moved toward Western Europe in search of better prospects over the past five years. While many Somali refugees have been able to return home voluntarily in recent years, many living in Dadaab still need international protection. They cannot, however, be expected to live in camps for another 25 years. New approaches are thus being devised by fostering a closer cooperation between humanitarian and development actors to ensure socio-economic inclusion of these refugees, who mostly live in two of the lagging regions of Kenya, and to increase development support for their hosts. Rather than constituting an obstacle to eventual voluntary return—which is one of the possible durable solutions—the socio-economic inclusion of refugees empowers them to contribute to the development of their host countries and take advantage of the opportunities available in their country of origin once repatriation becomes possible.
In 2011 and 2012, waves of criminal activity hit the Dadaab area, raising security concerns and necessitating heightened security measures. The attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and on Garissa University in April 2015 further ignited concerns that the Dadaab camps posed a threat to Kenya’s national security, with accusations that the attacks had been planned there. Although no refugees were apprehended in connection to these attacks, Kenya’s Deputy President announced in April 2015 that the Dadaab camp would close within three months. Following negotiations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Governments of Kenya and Somalia reiterated commitments to adhere to the terms of the 2013 Tripartite Agreement, which guarantees the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. It was also agreed that UNHCR would help advocate for increased donor support to the Government of Kenya’s law enforcement efforts in Dadaab.
The 2013 Tripartite Agreement provided the legal framework and acknowledged the fact that despite challenges, voluntary returns to safe parts of Somalia were possible. Tens of thousands of refugees who primarily fled drought and famine in 2011 were spontaneously returning to their places of origin between 2011 and 2013 once the conditions allowed. Many more may have likely returned if adequate resources to ensure access to basic social services such as health care and education had been available in Somalia, especially after UNHCR and partners started, in December 2014, to provide material support to refugees who had voluntarily decided to return. The Agreement thus stressed the importance of resource mobilization to support returnees’ sustainable reintegration into their places of origin. To that end, UNHCR and the European Commission development arm (the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development) organized a donor conference in October 2015 in Brussels, Belgium. The conference’s results were disappointing with donors pledging only one fifth of the required funds to finance the proposed development projects. Although the Conference demonstrated voluntary returns to Somalia as a viable solution to the Somali refugee crisis, skepticism that assisting returnees without providing equal assistance to internally displaced persons could create conflicts prevailed within the international community. Also contributing to the poor donor response was the widely-held perception that Dadaab provided a convenient temporary solution to the Somali refugee crisis, a misplaced belief belied by the fact that humanitarian resources necessary to maintain the camp were dwindling. Therefore, Kenya’s decision to close the Dadaab camps should be viewed within context of inadequate international support to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees from Kenya by investing in the socio-economic projects designed to help returning refugees and communities in return areas, including IDPs. The decision must also be analyzed within an international environment where nations that have received and protected refugees for decades see more recent asylum countries receive more attention and resources, seemingly due to their proximity to Western Europe.
Although Kenya repeatedly reaffirmed its intention to continue to abide by its international refugee protection obligations, some interpreted its decision to close Dadaab without offering alternatives for refugees as a decision to expel Somali refugees. To ensure that refugees fully understood their rights to continued asylum in Kenya, however, the UNHCR and its partners disseminated detailed information on the voluntary nature of any return and on current conditions in refugees’ places of origin.
Furthermore, the Somali refugee situation does not only affect Kenya, but all of Somalia’s neighbors in the region. There are approximately 1 million Somali refugees hosted in East and Horn of Africa countries as well as across the Red Sea in Yemen. The focus on the announcements and actions by the Kenya authorities took attention away from this important regional dimension. To keen observers, it was clear that a regional approach was imperative in order to spur conditions that would be conducive for sustainable return in Somalia, preserve protection space in host countries, support host communities and realize sustainable durable solutions.
As a result, on March 25, 2017, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Assembly of Heads of State and Government held a Special Summit on Somali Refugees in Nairobi, and adopted the IGAD Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees and Reintegration of Returnees in Somalia. For the first time the Somali refugee situation was formally acknowledged as a crisis warranting a regional approach involving all hosting countries facing similar challenges. A sense of collective responsibility and interdependence emerged from the IGAD member states’ debates and commitments. The Summit adopted a Declaration that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described as “unprecedented.” In the spirit of the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugee and Migrants, the IGAD Nairobi Declaration underlined the need to adopt a Comprehensive Regional Refugee Response Framework for the Somali refugee situation. The framework reaffirmed the right to seek asylum for persons in need of international protection while stressing the need to actively invest resources in support of sustainable voluntary repatriation and to allow for socioeconomic integration of refugees in host countries, rather than encampment, until they can return to their places of origin. The Summit also called for a new commitment from financial institutions and for development actors to no longer view protracted forced displacement solely as a humanitarian issue, but one that also requires a developmental response.
The Summit addressed concerns expressed by the Kenyan Government regarding due attention to the Somali refugee situation by the international community. The implementation of the principles contained in the Declaration and its action plan will help ensure that countries from the East and Horn of Africa can continue to adhere to their long-standing tradition of hospitality and not perceive refugees as a threat to their internal security and stability. Noting that the region is currently facing severe drought, with the possibility of further forced displacements, the timeliness of this comprehensive regional approach cannot be overemphasized.