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UN urges Kenya to reconsider closing refugee camp

April 14, 2015

The UN has asked Kenya to reconsider closing a massive refugee camp housing hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Plans were made to relocate the camp after al-Shabab militants from Somalia massacred 148 people in Garissa.

Flüchtinge in Dadaab Kenia
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Abwao

The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday warned Kenya that shutting the Dadaab refugee camp would constitute a breach of international law and have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

Kenya's government believes the camp has become a breeding ground for terrorists and is being used as a recruitment center for Somali militant group al-Shabab, which massacred 148 people at Garissa College University in eastern Kenya on April 2. In the wake of the attack, Kenyan authorities over the weekend demanded the UNHCR repatriate Dadaab's 350,000 Somali refugees within three months.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl said she recognized "the obligation of the government to ensure the security of its citizens."

However, she added that closing Dadaab, considered the world's biggest refugee camp, "would have extreme humanitarian and practical consequences, and would be a breach of Kenya's international obligations."

Playing into al-Shabab's hands

The five camps making up the vast complex were opened when Somalia descended into civil war in the early 1990s. Most of the 450,000 Somali refugees who've since fled over Kenya's border are housed within its confines. De Gruijl said Somalia was in "no condition" to receive such a sudden influx of refugees, and that the UNHCR was prepared to work with Kenyan authorities to "strengthen law enforcement" at Dadaab.

Flüchtinge in Dadaab Kenia
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis are housed at DadaabImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurokawa

Njonjo Mue, an adviser with Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice in Nairobi said the plan to empty the camp "boggles the mind" and could play into al-Shabab's hand.

"Basically, we would be handing over to al-Shabab a ready-made army of say 200,000 young men who will be desperate and who will have nothing to do," he said.

It's not the first time the Kenyan government has tried to close the camp. They also sought to move it in September 2013, after al-Shabab killed at least 67 people in an attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall. In the end, Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR managed to reach an agreement to support only voluntary repatriation of Somalis.

nm/jr (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)