Argument

Kenya Just Accused the U.N. of Aiding Terrorists

Here’s why that’s totally outrageous.

Tents fill the outskirts of Dagahaley refugee camp in Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex on July 24, 2011. The United Nations refugee agency estimates Dadaab is receiving 1,300 new arrivals each day, adding to the numbers in the already drastically overpopulated camp. Dadaab was opened twenty years ago, with a capacity of 90,000 people. Current estimates place the refugee population here at around 380,000 people. The European Union aid commissioner vowed yesterday to do all that is possible to help 12 million people struggling from extreme drought across the Horn of Africa, boosting aid by 27.8 million euros ($40 million). AFP PHOTO/PHIL MOORE (Photo credit should read PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)
Tents fill the outskirts of Dagahaley refugee camp in Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex on July 24, 2011. The United Nations refugee agency estimates Dadaab is receiving 1,300 new arrivals each day, adding to the numbers in the already drastically overpopulated camp. Dadaab was opened twenty years ago, with a capacity of 90,000 people. Current estimates place the refugee population here at around 380,000 people. The European Union aid commissioner vowed yesterday to do all that is possible to help 12 million people struggling from extreme drought across the Horn of Africa, boosting aid by 27.8 million euros ($40 million). AFP PHOTO/PHIL MOORE (Photo credit should read PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)

As thousands of refugees attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing each week, millions more remain trapped in semi-permanent displacement camps — away from the guns and bombs they fled back home, but shut out of the economic centers where they might thrive. Nowhere are there more such people than in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on earth and a crude metropolis of sticks and mud located in northeastern Kenya.

Dadaab, which sprawls out over 20 square miles of desert some 60 miles from the border with Somalia, is home to nearly half a million Somali refugees, many of whom have been there since 1991, when their home country collapsed into civil war. As attacks by the militant group al-Shabab have intensified in Kenya in the wake of the country’s 2011 invasion of Somalia, however, the Kenyan government has come to regard Dadaab as a security threat. Now it wants to close the camp — and deny its residents even the privilege of living in purgatory.

Without producing a shred of evidence that they are assisting al-Shabab, the Kenyan government has done its best to scapegoat Somali refugees for its own security failings. After the 2013 Westgate Mall attack, Kenya’s interior minister joined the chairman of the parliamentary national security committee in branding Dadaab “a nursery for terrorists.” Thousands of refugees were subsequently rounded up by security forces, many of them incarcerated in the national stadium, before being deported or sent back to Dadaab. Following the shootings at Garissa University earlier this year, Deputy President William Ruto issued loud public orders for the camp to be closed within three months. Last month, the Kenyan government went a step further: blaming the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) for aiding refugees in their supposed terrorist activities.

At a U.N. meeting in Geneva on Oct. 4, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery voiced concern “about the alleged involvement or complacency of some UNHCR personnel, who facilitate terrorist activities in this country.” The interior minister cited as evidence the discovery in September of a single arms cache in Dadaab but failed to substantiate the claims against U.N. staff. The weapons recovered from the camp — three AK-47s and 92 rounds of ammunition — were discovered because of a tip-off from other refugees and paled in comparison to arms caches recovered from Kenyan militants elsewhere in the country. In other words, the episode offered at least as much evidence of a cooperative relationship between Somali refugees and Kenyan authorities as of an antagonistic one. Indeed, Kenyan police officers publicly thanked the refugees for their help in locating the arms cache.

Nkaissery’s comments are just the latest in a long line by Kenyan officials peddling the lazy fiction that refugee camps are natural hotbeds of terrorism. Academic studies on the relationship between terrorism and refugees in the Horn of Africa have been unable to substantiate any link. The only systematic study of radicalization among students in Dadaab found that “of the hundreds of refugees interviewed, no one was able to identify former students who had left the camp to join al-Shabaab.” After five years of visiting and working in the camp, I can confirm that anecdotes of youths joining forces with al-Shabab are few and far between.

Responding to Nkaissery’s claims at the U.N. meeting, a UNHCR spokesperson later expressed “surprise” at the allegations and said the agency was “not aware of any staff who are complicit in terrorism-related matters.” That’s almost certainly because the interior minister’s claims were little more than political maneuvering.

The vast majority of Dadaab’s inhabitants are peaceful, educated refugees, who are desperate to help the international community rebuild their home country: They are allies in the fight against al-Shabab, not the enemy. During the four years I spent following several dozen residents of Dadaab for my forthcoming book, I interviewed hundreds of young people and participated in numerous youth forums. Many young refugees expressed incredulity at the Kenyan government’s characterization of them, explaining that they had fled to Kenya in search of education and opportunity precisely because of al-Shabab. Girls who were educated in the camp, meanwhile, would likely become targets for extremists if they returned to Somalia. Not a single refugee has been convicted of terrorism offenses in Kenya.

Even for the fringe minority that might harbor terrorist ambitions, Dadaab would be a very difficult place to turn them into reality. Al-Shabab members certainly pass through Dadaab — the camp has a population bigger than Kenya’s fourth-largest city and sits squarely on the main road from Nairobi to Somalia — but the high level of surveillance and policing means that it would be difficult for them to plot anything there. UNHCR employs security officers who work closely with the Kenyan National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), the Kenyan police, and Western intelligence agencies. All of them are watching the camp closely. As one security officer told me during an interview in 2014, “this place is one of the most monitored on the planet; it’s hard to do anything sophisticated here.”

Dadaab is also home to one of the most effective community policing efforts in all of Kenya, which is funded by USAID. The NSIS, Kenyan police, and UNHCR hold weekly security meetings with representatives of the refugees, who are organized into so-called Community Peace and Security Teams (CPSTs). These teams patrol the camp and report suspicious activity back up the chain, a system that has resulted in numerous arrests. Yet the Kenyan government seems to have drawn the wrong lesson from these successes. The fact that a steady trickle of al-Shabab suspects have been apprehended in Dadaab is an indicator not of an elevated threat level, but of the good working relationship between CPSTs, the United Nations, and Kenyan security services.

Even the geography of Dadaab is not conducive to would-be plotters. The camp is laid out in an orderly grid and divided into blocks inhabited by people who know each other and never go anywhere. A stranger would be immediately noticed. Phone taps and satellite surveillance are also more effective in such a controlled environment. Hiding and planning a major terrorist attack would be much more easily accomplished in an anonymous urban center like Nairobi, Mombasa, or Garissa.

The tragedy of Kenya’s blinkered determination to scapegoat refugees for its own security failings and counterproductive foreign policy — the 2011 invasion and subsequent occupation of southern Somalia has deteriorated into a corrupt smuggling racket for the Kenyan army, according to the U.N., and likely provoked the increase in domestic al-Shabab attacks is that the camp and its residents could easily be turned into an asset as Nairobi works to stabilize southern Somalia.

Kenyan authorities seem to think that making life in Dadaab as uncomfortable as possible will encourage refugees to return to Somalia — or to stay away from Kenya in the first place. Life in the camp is harsh: Residents are not allowed to leave nor are they allowed to work. Kenya forbids any moves toward permanence — including durable concrete homes, sanitation blocs, or sewage installations — so the camp’s 360,000 registered residents must live in tents or shacks, ferry water from communal taps, and share pit latrines. A third generation is now growing up in the camp without ever having set foot in Somalia and with little prospect of a future outside the camp. It is little wonder that the Kenyan security services fret about the miserable conditions being tinder for radicalization. Amazingly, so far, they do not appear to have had that effect.

Those who grew up in the camp and went to school speak English, Swahili, and Somali. They have degrees earned online and through the mail, and they are desperate to build peace and find work back in Somalia. They constitute a ready-made middle class that, if allowed to develop and start businesses, might well form a bridgehead of economic development that could foster peace across the border while also providing tax revenue for Kenya. But instead of encouraging these younger generations of refugees, Kenya maligns them every time a bomb goes off somewhere else in the country.

There is no doubt that Kenya is in the grip of a security crisis. Al-Shabab appears able to strike at will anywhere in the country while the nation’s security services seem unable to either anticipate or respond to attacks with any degree of competence. Hosting refugees, however, is not deepening that crisis. On the contrary, welcoming them with open arms and enlisting their support in a broader effort to stabilize southern Somalia might well be part of the solution.

Photo credit: AFP / Stringer 

Ben Rawlence is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch on the Horn of Africa. His book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp, will be published in January 2016.

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