The Kenyan government is threatening to close the world’s largest refugee camp to date, located in the town of Dadaab, and send around 350,000 refugees back to Somalia.
According to the Washington Post, Kenyan officials view the camp as a national security threat for Kenya, including extremist groups aligned to plan attacks, like the one on Garissa University College in which 148 people got killed last month.
The Dadaab camp was constructed in 1991 as a temporary solution for refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war.
It is now a sprawling city hosting nearly 350,000 people. Forcing refugees out of camp will not only be a logistical issue but also a humanitarian disaster, aid officials said.
The drastic situation in Kenya creates concerns of new probable illegal refugee migrations, resulting in boat disasters similar to the one in which 700 migrants died in April when an overcrowded boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
The refugees in Dadaab camp heard the government’s decision from the radio. The announcer read a statement from Kenya’s vice president, William Ruto: “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.”
“Sending them back to Somalia when al-Shabab still controls vast swaths of the country would be a disaster, a human tragedy and a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Leonard Zulu, the acting director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dadaab.
“What will happen to all the youths not occupied in school and vocational activities?” asked Zulu, the UNHCR official.
“One potential problem is that forcing the refugees out would create a massive pool of young men susceptible to al-Shabaab recruitment or abduction,” said Mark Yarnell, a senior advocate for Refugees International, a Washington-based research organisation.
With the emergence of al-Shabaab, the camp evolved from being temporary. More refugees poured into Dadaab when Somalia faced a famine in 2011.
After the 2013 attack on a Nairobi mall left 67 dead, Kenyan officials reiterated their belief that Dadaab was a safe haven for terrorists.
Parliamentarians and cabinet members, including the interior minister, asked for Dadaab to be closed.
UN officials acknowledge the security concerns surrounding Dadaab as well.
The situation is ‘considered’ unpredictable that even Kenyan employees working for the UN are only allowed to travel in the camp with armed escorts during a small period of time each day.
“It’s as if we’ve lost this part of the country,” said Albert Kimathi, the deputy county commissioner in Dadaab.