The U.N. Is Sending Thousands of Refugees Back Into a War Zone
Kenya’s plan to close the world’s largest refugee camp involves illegal forced repatriations of Somalis. Why is the U.N. helping to carry it out?
Returnees described multiple pressures that forced them to leave Dadaab. Intimidation by Kenyan security forces, whom returnees blame for whipping up rumors of forced evictions, left many convinced they could face physical violence if they remained. Many said their community leaders in the camp had told them unambiguously that Kenyan authorities were saying it was time to leave. The appointment of army generals to the government committee tasked with closing Dadaab registered as a clear warning: Stay after Nov. 30, the government’s deadline for closure, and risk being caught up in a military operation to clear the camp.
“We were afraid they would come with trucks, with soldiers,” said Abii, who spoke quickly and animatedly, orange nail polish glinting in the sun.
Unable to answer the question of what would happen after the government’s deadline, aid agencies did little to assuage people’s fears. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme’s 2015 decision to cut food rations by 30 percent began to look in retrospect to some residents like a covert plan to starve them out.
“The only option was to take the little money UNHCR was giving if you left,” Abubakar said. “People were going hungry in Dadaab.”
Mark Yarnell, whose work at the advocacy group Refugees International focuses on Somalia, said the repatriation process amounted to a clear violation of international humanitarian law. “It’s a sham to call it voluntary return when you have the Kenyans waging an effective information campaign to instill fear, and then you have UNHCR providing inducements for people to return to a place that’s unstable and unsafe,” he said.
The Kenyan Interior Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in the past it has denied that the repatriations are anything but voluntary and humane. However, officials have repeatedly skirted the issue of what will happen to those refugees who wish to remain. In July, Haro Kamau, the deputy commissioner of Garissa County who oversees Dadaab, told FP that it “would be very unkind for any refugee to refuse to go home.”
The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support refugees in Dadaab over the years. It has also called on the Kenyan government to back off its plan to close the camp by Nov. 30. At the same time, however, it supports UNHCR’s repatriation efforts. On a visit to Nairobi last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged an additional $29 million specifically to help facilitate the return of refugees to Somalia.
“We are very concerned by reports that refugee returns from the Dadaab camps in Kenya to Somalia are not truly voluntary,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told FP in a written statement. “In consultations with both UNHCR and the Government of Kenya, we have stressed the imperative that those individuals enlisting in the voluntary return program are doing so with full knowledge of what they can likely expect in Somalia.”
UNHCR continues to defend the repatriation process as consistent with its mandate to ensure that all returns are voluntary, safe, and dignified. It has acknowledged unspecified “concerns” raised by human rights advocates but says it is working closely with the Kenyan government to guarantee that refugees’ rights are respected.
“UNHCR is not promoting returns to Somalia but facilitating the movements of those who make an informed and therefore voluntary decision to return, by providing travel assistance, cash grants and an in-kind assistance package,” Catherine Hamon Sharpe, UNHCR’s assistant representative in Kenya, said in a written statement to FP. “The fact that the Government of Kenya has set 30 November as a deadline for the closure of the camp and that no alternative has been provided, obviously creates anxiety among refugees, as a voluntary process cannot be time-bound. It is noted however, that the Government has repeatedly stated that there will be no forced returns.”
UNHCR’s insistence that a voluntary process cannot be time-bound but that this particular time-bound process is entirely voluntary succinctly demonstrates the corner the agency has backed itself into. In private, current and former UNHCR officials say they were faced with an impossible choice when the Kenyan government made clear that it was serious about closing the camp: If they recused themselves from the process, the Kenyan government might have started its own mass deportations that could have precipitated a humanitarian disaster. But a “humanitarian disaster” is precisely what the regional government in Kismayo — the Jubaland administration — has called the U.N.’s existing repatriation program.
“There was this sense that we were preventing the worst-case scenario, which maybe we are,” said a UNHCR official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But you could also argue that we are approaching a worst-case scenario anyway.”
Whether or not it’s making the best of a bad situation, UNHCR’s actions provide political cover to a Kenyan government that has long viewed this refugee population as a nuisance. And as the campaign of intimidation has intensified, the agency has found itself on the wrong side of international agreements and norms that it’s duty-bound to uphold.
“The approach that’s been taken up until now has been characterized by a lack of honesty,” said Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR who is now affiliated with the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. “If UNHCR feels obliged, for one reason or another, good or bad, to get involved in an operation that doesn’t meet its own standards, which it’s put up in public, then it’s got to explain what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. But my sense over the last few weeks is that they’re trying to fudge this.”