Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, faces a possible shutdown, the Kenyan government announced Friday, saying it will move forward with plans to repatriate residents despite widespread outcry from human rights groups.
The interior minister has set aside almost $10 million for the process, saying that all refugees in the camp will be repatriated to Somalia by May 2017.
The camp is home to some 350,000 refugees, most of whom migrated from Somalia after a civil war that led to the collapse of the central government. Many were born and raised in the camp, which has been in operation for about 25 years.
The Kenyan government has cited security concerns, financial challenges, and environmental burdens for making it unable to keep sheltering refugees in Dadaab. Officials contend that the camp is used by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Shabaab, which has launched deadly attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 Westgate mall attack that left about 70 dead, and the Garissa University College attacks, in which militants massacred 147 students.
Kenya initially announced that it would close its Kakuma camp as well, potentially displacing a combined total of 600,000 refugees, but now says Kakuma will remain in place because it doesn't pose a major threat.
"It would be inexcusable for the government to overlook its primary constitutional responsibility to protect her citizens and their property," Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said in a press conference, according to The Star newspaper.
"The camp has become a hosting ground for al-Shabaab and a centre for smuggling contraband, besides illicit weapons proliferation," he added.
But observers 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.
Still others say the announcement is just a political calculation. Simon Allison, who writes for the Daily Maverick, says that the timing, coming a few weeks after the ruling party started campaigning for re-election, isn't surprising.
"Like leaders all the world over – just look at Donald Trump's fixation with Mexican immigrants, or how Europe's far right is capitalizing on the migration crisis – Kenyatta and his advisers know that refugee-bashing is a cheap, easy way to score political points," Mr. Allison writes.
Human rights organization have decried the plan, saying that Kenya will be breaking international law, which forbids countries from forcefully returning refugees to their countries of origin, especially if the countries aren't considered safe.
But Kenya says that Somalia is safe for return. In 2013, the UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia signed an agreement to repatriate Somali refugees voluntarily, prompting a reduction in the number of refugees in the camp from about half a million to 350,000, Reuters reported.
"Many Somali refugees fled horrendous abuses in Somalia, have lived in Kenya for years, well before the recent security crisis, and make enormous economic contributions to the country," writes Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "Sending tens of thousands of desperate and destitute people back could force many into the hands of the Al-Shabaab recruiters they fled, exacerbating Kenya’s security problems."
This isn't the first time that the country has announced a plan to shut down the refugee camp. Last year, the government threatened to close the camps at least twice and in 2013, it made a similar call after the Westgate attack.
If Kenya moves forward with its plan, it will join a list of countries facing scrutiny over the disregard for the principle of non-refoulement, or sending a refugee back to their country of origin – a list that now includes Australia and some other European countries.
International law governing the principle "has no provisions relating to enforcement, making individual states responsible for implementing the treaty in good faith," Rosemary Byrne, an associate professor of international law at Trinity College in Dublin, told the World Politics Review. "Good faith is a frail concept in times of crisis."