Few countries have done more to provide a safe haven for refugees than Kenya. And few countries have suffered the brutality of terrorism more than this country.
In justifying the closing of refugee camps that are home to more than 600,000 people, Kenya’s Interior ministry seeks to link these two issues: refugees and terrorism. This is wrong. Refugees are victims of terrorism. They are survivors of war atrocities, persecution, and discrimination. They need our help, not our fear.
The Interior Ministry’s claim that hosting refugees poses security challenges, including infiltration by terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, is misguided. To date, there is not a shred of evidence linking refugees from Dadaab and Kakuma to terrorist attacks in Kenya. What we do know is that some attacks in Kenya were masterminded and perpetrated by both home-grown and international terrorists.
In nearby Ethiopia, 700,000 refugees have not unleashed terrorism and insecurity on their hosts. Neighbouring Uganda, with over 500,000 refugees (including Kenyans), has likewise not been affected by refugee-inflicted insecurity.
Kenya is clearly traumatised by the horrific acts perpetrated against its innocent citizens and it is understandable that the authorities would seek to stem any potential enablers of violence.
However, the reality is that the refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma are among the least enabled people on the planet. They have braved war, atrocities, and persecution to live in a bleak Kenyan refugee camp. They are the poorest of the poor.
Given the squalor of their existence and the limbo-like endlessness of their stay — some refugees have lived in Dadaab for 25 years — it is the peacefulness, not the violence, of Kenya’s refugee population that is perhaps its most remarkable characteristic.
Throwing the refugees out now would not just be a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and corresponding protocols, which Kenya has ratified. It would destabilise this peaceful population and potentially bring about the very scenario Kenya’s Interior ministry fears.
After all, many refugees cannot go home — it is simply too dangerous. Some refugees have lived most of their lives in the camps and no longer know where “home” is. Those who came to the camps as teenagers are now in their forties, with little or no connection to their countries of origin.
It is unrealistic to hope that everyone will simply just go home. Many will scatter, seek ways to survive — and their vulnerability will make them more receptive to the voices of hate and terrorist ideology.
Rather than close the camps and force refugees out, Kenya needs new thinking and the goodwill to translate that thinking into action. The international community has long undervalued the critical role Kenya has played as a safety valve for regional security.
It should now reward that sacrifice and support Kenya’s leadership role in the African Union and other regional bodies. Kenya can and must be at the forefront of peace-making efforts to resolve crises in Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, and everywhere else that produces refugees.
At home, Kenya should recognise that refugees have the potential to contribute to economic growth. Our leaders can choose to establish a legal and regulatory framework that recognises this potential and provides refugees with the kind of education, skills, and job-training that will help them to be productive members of society.
Supportive refugee laws that incorporate their rights and responsibilities but allow them to work and contribute are a far better option than maintaining bleak “warehouses” where human potential is stifled and potential capital wasted.
Uganda, which tops the world with its progressive refugee policy, passed legislation (the 2006 Refugees Act) that could serve as a model. This law promotes refugee self-reliance and favours a development-based approach to refugee assistance. Refugee matters are included in its national development plan.
History has taught us that fear is a poor policy tool. It leads to bad choices, instability, social chaos, and the further victimisation of the already victimised.
Kenyans need to take a deep breath and look hard at the implications of closing the camps and casting out hundreds of thousands of people into an unknown, but certainly worse, fate.
Ms Ngugi has more than two decades of experience working on refugee issues for several international organisations. firstname.lastname@example.org