Kenya has announced that it will be closing two major refugee camps by June 30, 2022. These camps are home to over 400,000 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. The Kakuma camp, currently hosting 190,000 refugees, is located in north-western Kenya, near the Kenyan-South Sudanese border, while the Dadaab camp lies near the Somali border in eastern Kenya. 

Despite working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to support and safely relocate these refugees, the closure of the camps will ultimately leave roughly 433,765 refugees in a dangerous position. Nevertheless, in a joint statement with the Kenyan government, the UNHCR doubled down on this decision to close the camps on the basis that “​​refugee camps are not a long-term solution to forced displacement.” While long-term stability should indeed be a priority for refugees in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps, their physical and mental safety in the present must also be taken into account. 

History of the Refugee Camps

The Dadaab refugee camp, created 30 years ago, was once the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting up to 500,000 Somali refugees. When the camp was established, Somalia was experiencing civil war, famine, and drought, leading many to flee and find refuge in Dadaab due to its proximity to Somalia. 

The Kakuma camp was established in 1992 after the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of roughly 20,000 young boys fleeing from Sudan’s civil war, settled in Kenya. This camp is also where many Ethiopian refugees settled after fleeing their home country due to political instability. 

Economic Activity and the Justification Behind the Closure

The Dadaab and Kakuma camps are economic hubs within Kenya, drawing in local economic stimulation and investment. Contrary to popular misconceptions, refugees are “not simply passive consumers of aid,” but actively contribute to the growing economy and market. 

Amongst the individuals residing in the camps are entrepreneurs, with over 2,000 businesses present in the Kakuma refugee camp and 200 shops in the town of Kakuma. In considering both the town and the camp in Kakuma, the total household consumption amounts to roughly $56.2 million dollars per year.

The Dadaab and Kakuma refugees camps are not only bustling economic sites with a lot to offer, but they are truly home for thousands of people: so why is the Kenyan government shutting them down?

Primarily, Kenya has asserted that the Dadaab camp poses a security threat. This assertion has been made on the claim that the camp has acted as a “recruiting ground for the armed group al-Shabab.” Al-Shabab is a “religiously motivated violent extremist [youth] organization” in Somalia that has gained control over large parts of the country and contributed significantly to its instability. The Kenyan government maintains that the Dadaab camp is the source of “violent attacks inside Kenya,” despite the lack of conclusive evidence. 

UNHCR Closure Plan

After being given fourteen days by the Kenyan government to assemble a plan for the Dadaab and Kakuma closure, the UNHCR developed a system for the relocation of refugees residing in the camps. This plan laid out a “set of options available to refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya,” allowing them the options of voluntary repatriation, departure to a third-party country, or integration into Kenya. 

Voluntary repatriation means residents of the camps would return to their home countries, which they originally fled seeking refuge from severe threats to their wellbeing. The option to depart to a third-party country means that those countries would be willing to host some of the refugees looking to relocate. However, thus far, there have been no advancements as to which countries these may be. 

Meanwhile, the third option to integrate into Kenya, while most ideal and sustainable for both the host country and the asylum-seekers, is made difficult by the “[complex] pathway to legal status”; in order to be eligible to apply for permanent residency in Kenya, refugees must hold a work permit for at least seven years, and continuously reside in Kenya for three years.  Nonetheless, the UNHCR announced in a joint statement with the Kenyan government that refugees will be offered a work permit to facilitate this integration into Kenya. 

What This Means for Residents

Safety, of course, is a top concern for the residents of the camps. Having fled dangerous and harsh conditions in their home countries, including war, violence, famine, and drought, these refugees have sought out and found an environment to reconvene in and establish a new life. Many of the residents have been settled in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps since they were created, while some were even born in the camps and have always known it as home. The closure of the camps means not only that its residents will have to relocate, but it also cuts off their access to basic services. 

Health care, for example, is an area of particular concern due to the loss of services that many refugees rely on. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in Dagahaley alone, one of the three divisions of the ​​Dadaab refugee complex, over 300 people require regular medication for “chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and a variety of cancers, as well as neurological disorders.” Additionally in Dagahaley, about 50 people “require continued care for diabetes,” including the supply of insulin, a medication many are likely to not have access to after the closure of these camps. MSF also carries out about 700 “life-saving surgeries” per year in this area of the camp, such as vital cesarean sections for mothers. 

Furthermore, the closure of Kakuma and Dadaab may worsen psychological scars that many of the residents already suffer the effects of. Mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder may go further untreated, and those in need of psychosocial counseling are likely to no longer have access to it outside of the aid provided in the camps. 

Future Challenges

While asylum-seekers will be given the option of integration into Kenya with the aid of a free work permit, this integration may be quite challenging to carry out, specifically due to the hit that the country took with the pandemic. Development funding is vital in order to support the expansion of public services that Kenya can offer these integrating refugees and ensure a safe and sustainable transition from the closures. Similarly, support from multilateral institutions alongside Kenyan authorities will be necessary for developing plans for the resettlement of the refugees that will be affected. 

Lara Yacoub

Lara is originally half-Syrian and half-Egyptian, but grew up in Mexico City and Calgary, AB. She moved to Vancouver in 2019 to complete a B.A. in International Relations at the University of British Columbia....