In the wake of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, for which the Somalia-based Al-Shabab terrorist organization claimed credit, several Kenyan politicians have called on their government to expel Somali refugees. However, Kenyan authorities must not succumb to this political pressure because such a move would not only violate international law but also harm Kenya’s national security interests. Furthermore, public statements that blame the entire Somali refugee community for this attack should be viewed with caution, as they promote xenophobia and distract the Kenyan government from pursuing the actual perpetrators.
On 21 September 2013, a group of armed militants stormed the Westgate Mall and gunned down shoppers during a multi-day siege that left sixty-seven people dead. While the Kenyan government explores its options to bolster its counter-terror capabilities and prevent another attack in the future, several members of the Kenyan parliament are focusing their attention and blame squarely on the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees living within Kenya’s borders.
A few days after the attack, the chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Administration and National Security, Asmam Kamama, urged the closure of the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya, which he described as a “nursery for terrorists.” He argued that shutting down the country’s refugee camps will assure Kenya’s safety from Al-Shabab.
During two decades of collapsed statehood in Somalia, Kenya has served as a generous host to Somalis seeking refuge from conflict and food scarcity. There are currently more than half a million Somali refugees in Kenya. Some reside in urban centers like Nairobi and Mombasa, but the vast majority live in the Dadaab refugee camp.
A mass forced return of refugees to Somalia, where conflict continues and from where refugees continue to flee, would be a violation of international law as well as Kenya’s constitution. Specifically, such action would contravene the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects refugees from being sent back to a place where they would face threats to life and freedom. The 1969 Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention also enshrines the principle of voluntary return. Kenya is a signatory to both, and the country’s constitution brings ratified international conventions into Kenyan law.
Beyond issues of legality and basic human rights, forced refugee returns would negatively affect Kenya’s national security interests. Though some areas of Somalia have recently gained a modicum of stability, many parts of the country’s south-central region—especially the areas that border Kenya—remain unsettled. Al-Shabab maintains a presence in many rural areas as well as the so-called “liberated” cities, where a multitude of war lords and clan leaders are competing for influence, sometimes violently. The arrival of large numbers of returnees would further destabilize the region. Moreover, there are still more than a million people living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Somalia.
In fact, when I visited Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in early September to assess the condition of IDP camps, IDPs were not only living in dismal shelters with poor access to basic healthcare and livelihood opportunities, but were also facing the constant threat of eviction by landowners, abuse by security forces, and theft of aid deliveries.
If refugees are forced to return prematurely to Somalia, many will transition from living as refugees in Kenya to living as IDPs in Somalia. Yet, due to the insecurity there, it will be even more difficult for aid providers to reach them. It is in Kenya’s national interest that Somalia stabilizes its domestic situation and prevents organizations like Al-Shabab from flourishing. Pushing refugees across the border would not contribute to this end and will, in fact, exacerbate the problem.
Fortunately, the Kenyan government is unlikely to take the drastic step of immediately shutting down Dadaab, which remains the largest refugee camp in the world with approximately 500,000 people. However, public statements that blame the entire refugee population for Kenya’s security challenges promote hostility toward all Somalis and can lead to de-facto forced returns. Late last year, when the government declared that refugees could no longer live in cities because they presented a security threat, Kenyan police unleashed a wave of abuse and extortion that forced thousands of refugees to flee back to Somalia. If similar tactics are used in the aftermath of the Westgate attack, it will not serve anyone’s best interest. Kenya has legitimate security concerns, but investigations must be targeted and not aimed at tarnishing an entire population.
The international community, particularly the United Nations Refugee Agency, must urge the Kenyan government to maintain its legal obligations to protect Somali refugees and asylum seekers. Donor countries, such as the United States, must also provide enough financial resources to support the refugee population in Kenya. This month, the United Nations World Food Program is reducing the size of the food rations that they distribute in the Dadaab camp by 20 percent due to budget shortfalls. This sends a dangerous signal that the international community is not willing to fully support Kenya as a refugee-hosting nation and could force some refugees to leave Dadaab due to a deteriorating situation in the camp. Conditions in parts of Somalia are gradually improving, but a premature return of refugees could destabilize the gains that have been made.