Kenya Plans End of 210,000 Strong Refugee Camp Near Somalia

(Bloomberg) -- Kenya is again considering closing the Dadaab refugee camp, once the world’s largest, two years after the nation’s High Court blocked the proposed shutdown that drew criticism from human rights groups.

The United Nations refugee agency “is aware of the renewed call by the government of Kenya to close the camp,” Dana Hughes, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said Thursday in emailed responses to questions. “Any refugee returns must be done on a voluntary and fully informed basis, in conditions of safety and dignity.”

Kenya Plans End of 210,000 Strong Refugee Camp Near Somalia

The camp that opened almost three decades ago is home to mostly ethnic Somalis who crossed into Kenya first to flee a civil war that ousted then President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. More refugees arrived from Somalia to escape a drought and famine a decade later.

The number of people living in the camp has reduced to 210,000 now from a peak of about half a million in 2011, according to UNHCR.

Voluntary Repatriations

In 2016, the government announced plans to close the camp after it said that Somalia-based militants were using it as a base to plan attacks on Kenya. While a high court in 2017 blocked the move, a voluntary repatriation program continued under which 81,000 refugees have returned to Somalia since 2014, according to Hughes.

A spokeswoman at the Interior Ministry didn’t comment immediately when called.

Human rights groups have opposed Kenya’s renewed push to shutter the camp because it infringes on the rights of refugees.

“These plans must be shelved,” Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director Irungu Houghton said in an emailed statement. A decision to close the camp would violate the 2017 court ruling. The government should instead find durable solutions for the refugees including integrating them into Kenyan society, Houghton said.

“Many Somali refugees are themselves victims of violence, from which they fled to seek protection,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on its website. “Forcing them to go back to face violence or persecution would be inhumane and a violation of Kenya’s legal obligations.”

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