As Europe continues to shirk responsibility, Kenya threatens to quit hosting refugees

On Friday, the Kenyan government announced it intends to close its refugee camps. These camps host over 600,000 refugees – mostly in Kakuma and Dadaab, the latter being the world’s largest refugee camp.

The announcement will bring much uncertainty to refugees in Kenya. It is also likely to create some anxiety in other countries in the region, and further afield. But while Kenya’s stated intentions are plainly irresponsible, the UK and many other governments are without moral authority to criticise – yet the announcement has implications for them too.

#Kenya to close two massive #refugee camps citing 'national security interests' #Kakuma & #Dadaab (world's largest)

— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) May 6, 2016

Refugee crises have been ignored for too long

Many of Kenya’s refugees are from the conflict in South Sudan, but the majority are of Somali origin. Many of them were born in the camps and have never been to Somalia – a country ravaged by conflict since the overthrow of then President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. There are more than 50,000 children under the age of four living in Dadaab camp.

Somalia’s is one of those protracted refugee crises, which the richer countries of Europe (and the West generally) have largely ignored for years. And in ignoring those crises, these countries – including the UK – have cosily assumed developing countries like Kenya will carry on hosting ever-increasing numbers of refugees indefinitely.

Over ten years up to 2014, the developing countries’ share of the world’s refugees rose from an already impressive 70% to a staggering 86%. Kenya’s share has risen at an even greater rate. At the start of this period, it was hosting around 250,000 refugees – less than the current population of Dadaab camp alone.

Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, visited Kakuma camp at the end of April. Afterwards, she said:

'It is vital that the UK works with countries such as Kenya on shared priorities like dealing more effectively with the challenges of refugees...'

However, the UK’s commitment lies almost exclusively in providing financial assistance. While that is important, the longstanding imbalance of responsibility -sharing needs addressing by countries like the UK hosting their share of refugees too.

Nonetheless, Kenya’s announcement barely a week after the Minister’s visit must have come as some surprise to the UK government. But should it?

Richer countries shirking not sharing responsibility

In April 2015, Kenya suffered the shocking murder of 148 people at Garissa by the terror group, Al Shabaab. Shortly after, the government threatened to close the refugee camps within three months – a reaction all too reminiscent of many reactions in Europe and the US to the more recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. 

Five weeks ago, in Geneva, at the UN high-level meeting on Syrian refugees, both Kenya and Ethiopia – hosting nearly 1.5 million refugees between them – warned the international community they expected similar attention to be given to their region.

But at that meeting, the UK – like most European and other richer countries – declined to make any new commitments to welcome more of the world’s refugees through resettlement, family reunion or other safe and legal routes. In the face of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s explicit call for the world’s richer countries to admit more Syrian refugees, those countries once again collectively looked away.

Their dogged refusal to share responsibility cannot have been lost on Kenya.

Of course, there was no reason to be surprised by the outcome in Geneva. European countries had already signalled their intentions by a shocking deal with Turkey. Under that deal asylum-seekers are to be returned from Greece to a country already hosting far more refugees than the entire European Union. 

In their rush to secure this deal, European countries were careless of conditions in Turkey – conditions that, for example, condemn thousands of children to labour exploitation rather than school. They also ignored that hundreds of refugees have been forced back by Turkey to the very countries where their lives are at risk. 

So what will be the impact of Kenya’s announcement?

One thing should be clear. Kenya’s neighbours are not in a position to simply take on the responsibility for the refugees it plans to eject.

Somalia remains profoundly unstable with more than a million people internally displaced. Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Sudan are already each hosting very large refugee populations too; and the latter is itself in the grip of a vicious conflict from which over 1.5 million people have been uprooted from their homes inside the country, with almost one million more displaced in the region as refugees.

Kenya’s announcement, threatens to cause further destabilisation in the region – particularly for those fleeing conflict and persecution.

This should worry European governments. Last year, refugees from this region – particularly Eritreans and Somalis – made up more than a third of all those crossing the Central Mediterranean to Italy.

Catastrophic consequences

While Europe’s political leaders – including our own Prime Minister – proclaim their commitment to tackling people smugglers, their continued refusal to share responsibility for receiving and hosting refugees has had some catastrophic knock-on effects.

These include thousands of men, women and children trapped at Syria’s borders for several months – unable to get out because the countries of the region have closed their borders, just as European countries are seeking to do, with devastating consequences. Now the upheaval from Kenya of more than 600,000 refugees threatens to become another of these catastrophes.

As has been the case for some time now, the policies of too many governments, from Europe to the regions of conflict and elsewhere, keep increasing many people’s vulnerability to smugglers and traffickers because they cannot find a safe and sustainable place in which to rebuild their lives. While our Prime Minister claims to be tackling the smugglers, in reality they seem to be the only ones gaining.

The lesson should be clear: where one government shirks rather than shares responsibilities, others soon follow.

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