Forcibly returning around 350,000 refugees to Somalia would be a violation of Kenya’s obligations under international law and put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, Amnesty International said today after Kenya’s Deputy President called for the camp to be closed.
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, is situated in the north east Kenya. It was established in 1991 and hosts over 350,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mostly from Somalia, but also Ethiopia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, South Sudan and Burundi amongst others.
The move to close the camp has been presented as a security measure in response to the attack on Garissa University College, which is about 100km away from the camp, and where 147 people were murdered.
Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes Muthoni Wanyeki said:
“The attack in Garissa underlined the need for the Kenyan government to better guarantee the security of its population. But this must not be done by putting at risk people Kenya is duty-bound to protect.”
On 11 April, Deputy President William Ruto said the government had told the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that it must close Dadaab refugee camp within three months and return its residents to Somalia, otherwise Kenya would ‘relocate them ourselves.’
Somalia’s government does not have effective control over many parts of south and central Somalia. General violence and insecurity persists and residents have frequently been subject to both indiscriminate and targeted attacks. If refugees are sent back to these areas, they risk human rights abuses, such as rape and killings, as well as extortion. While it is unclear who is responsible for attacks on civilians in all circumstances, it is believed all parties to the conflict carry out such attacks.
The Deputy President’s announcement comes against the backdrop of ongoing harassment of Somali and other refugees by the Kenyan security services. Last year, the Somali community was scapegoated and many of its members subjected to human rights violations during Operation Usalama Watch, a security operation that began in April 2014 following two attacks by unknown perpetrators the previous month.
Thousands of people were arrested, harassed and ill-treated, had money extorted, or were rounded up and forced into the refugee camps. Hundreds of people were forcibly sent back to Somalia. Amnesty is not aware of a single Somali arrested during the operation who was charged with terrorism-related offences.
This is not the first time that plans to return refugees to Somalia have been discussed. In November 2013, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Governments of Kenya and Somalia, and UNHCR, setting out a framework for the voluntary return of refugees to Somalia. The pilot phase began in December last year.
For refugee returns to be lawful, they must be genuinely voluntary – without undue pressure and with returnees’ safety and dignity guaranteed. Amnesty has found the ongoing harassment and ill-treatment of Somali refugees by the Kenyan security services has led many to consider returning to Somalia. When people feel they have no option other than to return, this is not a voluntary choice and can amount to forced return.
Amnesty urges the Kenyan government to abide by its obligations under national and international law, and to ensure protection for Somali refugees and asylum-seekers in Dadaab and elsewhere in the country as it has generously done for decades.