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Spotlight on Africa

Fate of Kenya's Somali refugees overshadowed by general election

Audio 10:00
Refugees gather in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya (File photo)
Refugees gather in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya (File photo)

Three years after Kenya put in place a voluntary scheme for Somali refugees to go home, the UN's refugee agency, (UNHCR) announced on Friday that over 65,000 of them have done so. Nairobi has previously threatened to shut down Dadaab, one of the world's largest camps. Critics are worried that the fate of its refugees will be overshadowed by the general election.


“I’ve seen many people write their names to the UNHCR to go back to Somalia, but mine not yet," Somali refugee Mohamed Aboubakar told RFI from Kakuma camp, Kenya's second largest camp after Dadaab on the border with Somalia.

"For me, I have no confidence to go back there because you know that place I left since 1992, up till now I’ve been in the Dadaab camps and Kakuma."

Kenya had given refugees in Dadaab--home to more than 328,000 people, most of whom are Somalis escaping conflict in their country--by the end of May 2017 to leave.

But a last minute ruling by the Kenyan High Court in February blocked that order, calling it unconstitutional and a blatant act of discrimination against Somalis.

"Most of my family was killed," continues Mohamed. "My mum is still there in Somalia. But I have no confidence to go back.”

The closure of Dadaab and Kakuma has been a hot-button issue for a while, with the government insisting Dadaab has become a haven for terrorism, after a string of al-Shabaab attacks.

Accusations of racial profiling

"I think there’s been so much official propaganda around the issue," Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes told RFI from Nairobi.

"I think that Kenyans are legitimately afraid considering that we have gone through attacks, they are looking for answers."

Targeting refugees however won’t solve Kenya’s security problems, she reckons.

"If you look at who was found to have been responsible for the Garissa attack it was a Kenyan, in fact the son of a local administrator. So again this idea that you can willy nilly put blame on every single Somalian refugee is not only stereotypical, it’s dangerous for Somali refugees, as well as for Kenyans who happen to be Somalian."

A point of view shared by legal practitioner Apollo Mboya from Kenya's Law Reform Commission.

"If you read the judgment that was given by Justice Mativo, it was declared that the directives that were issued for forceful repatriation was illegal and Kenya had violated its international obligations," he told RFI by phone from Mauritius, in reference to the High Court's ruling to block the closure of Dadaab.

"The second part of that judgment talked about the decision to close the camp without giving the stakeholders an opportunity to make representation and to that extent the court declared that that decision by the government was unconstitutional.”


Under international law, states are prohibited from forcibly returning people to a place where they would be at risk of human rights violations.

Critics have accused the government of using the refugee issue to score electoral points over its opponents.

“Of course we are in the election period now, the season has started," adds Apollo.

"There have been counter-accusations that even some of the refugees there are being given voting cards to vote for the Jubilee government [of President Uhuru Kenyatta] and the timing of the closure could be rhetoric considering it goes against our constitution and our international obligations. So it could very well be that it’s being done for political purposes.”

Political analyst Tom Mboya, though, disagrees.

High prices top voter concerns

“To be honest I haven’t heard much discussion around the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma camp as an election issue," he told RFI by phone from Nairobi.

"I would hesitate to say that it has become an election issue, certainly it is an emotive one. But suffice to say that there are a number of other issues that are shaping up as campaign issues here at the moment and the closure of Dadaab so far is not one of them.”

Mboya argues that soaring food prices and concerns over corruption are the main issues topping voter concerns ahead of August's general elections.

"The government recently had to intervene in rather strange circumstances to bring down the cost of maize, which is of course our staple food here in Kenya."

Those strange circumstances saw the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta forced to subsidise the price of maize flour, but the intervention has unearthed a scandal of its own, Mboya explains.

"Questions have emerged about where exactly certain shipments of maize had come from and whether in fact there was some insider dealing with regards to the price of maize,” he says.

Status of Dadaab unclear

Kenyatta has blamed his long-term rival Raila Odinga for the higher prices.

He recently told the Financial Times that those who have been in government--which is Odinga’s case-- should’ve dealt with the problem years ago, instead of napping.

On the issue of refugees, Kenyatta is the one staying silent.

Government officials declined to comment before our broadcast on the status of Dadaab, even as experts maintain that the camp's closure would be virtually impossible.

That leaves refugees like Mohamed in limbo for the time being.

"The main problem is when you go back to Somalia it is another problem because, you know, there is a lot of famine and again it is a lot of problems of militia groups because the country is not settled. People when they go back to the country they can’t stay there, most of the people they come back to the camps. They’re in the Dadaab camps some of them.”

Despite the recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, commonly known as Farmajo, Mohamed says he's still not convinced.

"The new Somali government, they can’t handle the country because the country has already corrupted" he comments. "But if it comes to the worst, and they tell all Somalis to go back to their country, maybe for me I’ll just look for another country to go."

Because there’s no future in Somalia?

"I have no future actually, yeah.”

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