Kenyan refugee camp, the world's largest, to stay open after high court order

Human rights groups had challenged plans to close the Dadaab camp, which houses refugees from neighboring Somalia.

Justin Lynch/AP
Said Abuka (r.) a community leader in Nairobi and a refugee for 22 years, speaks to the media outside the court in Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. A Kenyan court ruled Thursday that the government must not close the world's largest refugee camp and send more than 200,000 people back to war-torn Somalia, a decision that eases pressure on Somalis who feared the camp would close by the end of May.

A Kenyan court ruled on Thursday that a government order to shut down the world’s largest refugee camp was unconstitutional, finding that the conflict-ridden home country of the camp’s 200,000-plus Somali residents was not yet safe for return.

"The government's decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional," said High Court judge John Mativo in the ruling, according to the Associated Press.

Human rights groups Amnesty International, Kituo cha Sheria, and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights had challenged the order to close the UN-run Dadaab camp. The Kenyan government says it will file an appeal.

The decision shines a light on familiar tensions between legal obligations to protect refugees from war zones and security fears exacerbated by terror attacks by Somalia-based Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Several hundred Kenyans have died in attacks in recent years, including 70 people at the 2013 Westgate mall killings and 148 at Garissa University in 2015. 

The Kenyan government, which has described the Garissa attack as Kenya’s 9/11, stepped up military strikes against Al Shabaab targets in its aftermath, and began work on a wall along the border with Somalia. It also took aim at Dadaab, claiming with little conclusive evidence that it was a recruiting ground for the terror group, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in May, when Kenya announced a plan for repatriating the camp’s residents:

[O]bservers have refuted this claim, saying that the government has not yet been able to link any of the attackers to Dadaab. Many argue that the government is using the refugees as a scapegoat, contending that the security issues are stemming from corruption and the lack of proper counterterrorism efforts to deter the attacks.

Others point out that some of the suspected perpetrators are Kenyan, including Mohammed Abdirahim Abdullahi, a student from the University of Nairobi who was allegedly one of the masterminds behind the Garissa University College attacks.

Some critics of the planned shutdown, noted the Monitor then, pointed to the pre-election timing as proof that the ruling party was seeking to capitalize on the public’s fears by scapegoating refugees.  

The temporary travel ban issued last week by President Trump had resounded in the camp, with some 140 Somali refugees who had been accepted for resettlement in the United States suddenly sent back to Dabaab. 

Human rights groups applauded the High Court’s decision on Thursday.

"The High Court sent a strong message that at least one of Kenya's branches of government is still willing to uphold refugee rights," Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

"After months of anxiety because of the camp closure deadline hanging over their heads, increasingly restricted asylum options and the recent US administration suspension of refugee resettlement, the court's judgment offers Somali refugees a hope that they may still be have a choice other than returning to insecure and drought-ridden Somalia," she added. 

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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