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Kenya Moves to Shut Down the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Over the weekend, Kenya announced plans to shut the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, which house hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees

Ifo Camp, a recent extension to Dadaab, a 24-year-old refugee camp with over 300,000 inhabitants near the Kenya/Somalia border (UNHRC/B. Bannon)
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Over the weekend, the government of Kenya announced that it intends to close two refugee camps near its border with Somalia, one of which is the world’s largest refugee camp with more than 300,000 inhabitants.

Principal secretary of the ministry of interior, Karanja Kibicho writes:

Under the circumstances, the Government of the Republic of Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, has decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end.

The Government of Kenya acknowledges that the decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees and therefore the international community must collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action.

Both the Kakuma and Dadaab camps primarily house refugees from Somalia, where government instability, civil unrest and an Islamist insurgency have destabilized the country for decades. According to Gregory Warner at NPR, the larger of the two, Dadaab camp has been around for 24 years, and resembles a small city versus a camp full of tents.

The camps have been on the chopping block before, and are often political targets after terrorist attacks. In 2013, after militant Somali group al-Shabab attacked Nairobi’s Westgate Mall killing 67 people and wounding more than 175, members of parliament called for Dadaab to close. In April 2015, after al-Shabab attacked Garissa University killing 147 people, Kenya’s Interior Minister accused UN staff at the camp of aiding terrorists and the government decreased food rations to refugees and announced the closing of the camps.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry averted the closure last year, but this time around the threat seems more imminent. Though the Kenyan government has not released a timeline or plan for dissolving Dadaab and Kakuma, Peter Yeung at the Independent reports that it has already disbanded its department of refugee affairs.

“This reckless decision by the Kenyan government is an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk,” Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director in East Africa, says in a statement. “It could lead to the involuntary return of thousands of refugees to Somalia and other countries of origin, where their lives may still be in danger. This would be in violation of Kenya’s obligations under international law.”

Since 2012, an internationally backed government has improved stability in Somalia, but warlords and Islamist militants still plague the country. Merrit Kennedy at NPR reports that there was a palpable sense of sadness in Dadaab after the government announcement.

“People call this place a refugee camp but me, I call it home, because this is where I grew up and where I learned everything,” 23-year-old Nadifa Abdullahi tells Kennedy. “You see when you’re walking the streets yesterday and today, it’s like people are so sad. And saying to each other, ‘Where are we going? When the government of Kenya told us to go, we don't know where to go. What are we going to do?’”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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