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World’s Largest Refugee Camp Ordered to Stay Open

A Kenyan judge called the government’s plan to close Dadaab “discriminatory”

Permanent structures are not allowed in Dabaab, the world's largest refugee camp. (European Commission - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Since 1991, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have found a temporary sanctuary in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. It’s larger than many cities, with a recent tally of more than 256,000 registered residents. But some allege it represents a training ground for militants, and officials have repeatedly tried to close it down. Now, reports Rael Ombour for The Washington Post, a Kenyan court has ruled that the camp must stay open.

Last year, Kenya’s government put out a directive that would have forced the camp to close in November. The closure would have caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to be forcibly repatriated to Somalia. Then, in August, the government softened its stance and delayed the closure. Now, with the High Court’s decision, it looks like the closure has been blocked.

Why close down the camp? Kenya's secretary for the interior claimed on national television: "Dadaab is a nursery for terrorists," feeding Islamist militant groups and trains militants to commit attacks like the 2013 terror attack that left at least 67 people dead at a Nairobi mall. But though the camp has often been scapegoated by Kenyan officials, those claims have never been proven. That’s not to say that Islamic militants are not a problem in Kenya: Terrorist violence still threatens much of the country.

But Somali refugees, many of whom were born in the camp, and human rights workers say that forced repatriation is not the answer. Despite harsh conditions in Dadaab, many refugees say it’s better than the life they’d face in Somalia. Drought, hunger, violence, and a still unstable government make it hard for refugees to return home—especially those who have lived in the camp for years and no longer are tied to the country they left behind.

Will the court order reduce tensions between Somali refugees and the Kenyan government? Probably not. The ruling included language that said forcing Somali refugees to repatriate would have been “persecution” and unconstitutional, reports Ombour. However, reports the BBC, the Kenyan government has said it will appeal the decision.

In the meantime, the government has been directed to figure out how to care for the hundreds of thousands of people the camp is intended to welcome—people who have no choice but to watch and wait.

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