Kenya’s directive last week giving the UN refugee agency three-month to repatriate all Somali refugees in the country’s Dadaab refugee camp has caused anxiety with opinion divided over whether they should leave or not.
Deputy President William Ruto said the government had started talks with UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to shut down the camp, and threatened that the government will forcefully close down the world’s largest refugee settlement if no agreement is reached.
The directive has, however, been met with strong resistance from a section of legislators and UN body who urged the government to reconsider the move.
Ruto said the government has evidence that terrorist are using the camps to plan and carry attacks in Kenya, with the recent being the massacre of 148 people at the Garissa University college.
Leaders from Northern Kenya led by National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale were the first to call for the closure of the refugee camp housing 350,000, with most being Somalis.
Kenyan Senate Speaker Ekwe Ethuro said the government and the UNHCR should negotiate on how to repatriate the refugees, noting that it must follow international obligations.
Ethuro said there must be a legal regime governing the welfare of refugees even as the government plans to repatriate refugees in Dadaab. He, however, conceded that the refugee camps have been infiltrated by terrorists.
However, some of the 350,000 refugees who spoke to Xinhua refuted the claims, noting that the government has the machinery to detect and take action on those perceived to be sympathizers of the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab.
The refugees living in northeast Kenya camp said on Thursday that they are not willing to return home due to insecurity and harsh economic conditions.
“I have been in this camp for the past 20 years and I have never engaged myself in any criminal activities,” Amin Mohammed, a Somali refugee at the camp, told Xinhua.
“We feel aggrieved when we condemned wholesomely, yet it’s only a few bad elements in our midst could be involved,” he said.
Amina Ali, another refugee, expressed shock by the announcement, saying the only home she has a long known is the refugee camp.
“I don’t want to imagine in the next three months we shall be bundled into buses and driven to the jaws of Al-Shabaab who have no mercy with anyone,” she said as she breastfed her one-year-old daughter.
“I would rather die before that time comes rather than going back to a country I have never set foot,” she added.
The refugees’ reluctance to leave is despite poor living conditions in the camps. Some refugees living in Dagahaley said they have no means of keeping their homes dry in the rainy season while some have no access to latrines.
Somalia was torn asunder by factional fighting since 1991, but has recently made progress towards stability. The conflict has left some 1.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 1 million more living in exile in neighboring countries, mostly in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen.
Adow Yusuf, who fled Mogadishu when the Siad Barre government collapsed in 1991, said he could not wish to go back to the troubled country after survived the war then.
“The Kenyan government will be committing mass murder by sending us back into the hands of terrorists,” said Yusuf.
Hassan Hussein, a 60-year-old father of 12, said he has seen his children get educated and live peacefully in the refugee camp, and it would be a nightmare for them to be kicked out of the camp by the government which has hosted them for years.
“Where will I start with my kids who are not used to gunshots and people being butchered,” he said, calling on the government to negotiate with the UNHCR on claims that terrorist use the camp to plan and execute the heinous crimes.
“We are ready to work with the Kenyan government and UNHCR to rid the camps off these criminals if there are any. We shall not allow a few individuals to spoil our peaceful stay in Kenya,” he added.