Kenya : What’s Next for Dadaab
Kenya now aims to close Dadaab by the end of June 2017. Conditions in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, are deteriorating fast. Mark Yarnell from Refugees International says its residents face either starvation or returning to a conflict zone. The refugees being slowly starved out of Dadaab are expected to return to the very conditions that caused them to flee in the first place.
A funding shortage has forced the Word Food Program (WFP) to cut food rations for refugees in Kenya and beginning this month, the WFP cut monthly food rations in half for all refugees in Kenya through at least April unless it receives $13.7 million from donor governments. By cutting food, the international community, in addition to causing immediate harm, is reinforcing the Kenyan government’s message that Somali refugees are not welcome.
A prolonged drought across the border in Somalia, combined with ongoing insecurity, is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis there. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the current rainy season has been 50 to 70 percent below average thus far. More than 5 million Somalis – about 40 percent of the population – are in need of food aid, and that number is expected to rise in the coming months unless there is an immediate surge in humanitarian assistance. As the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq, stated : “The drought situation is extremely worrying and could deteriorate rapidly if we don’t act now. We are running against time.”
Despite the push to return refugees, fighting inside Somalia continues to force civilians to flee their homes on a daily basis. It also hinders the ability of aid workers to access people in need, thus compounding the impact of the drought. Recently, fighting between forces loyal to the semi-autonomous regions of Galmudug and Puntland displaced over 75,000 people.
Refugees in Dadaab, most of whom are Somali, face an impossible choice : stay in Dadaab where the future is uncertain and conditions are deteriorating or return to Somalia to face insecurity and hunger. The U.N. maintains that the returns are voluntary, that refugees have a choice. But so long as a deadline for camp closure exists with no other option for refugees but to return to Somalia, the logic does not square. One woman as she waited outside a UNHCR return help desk, where refugees can sign up for the repatriation program. I asked for her thoughts on the voluntariness of the program. “This is about fear. It’s not about choice,” she said emphatically.
In Dadaab, nearly every refugee we interviewed told us they were fearful about what might happen to them if they did not sign up for the UNHCR return program, which includes $200 upon departure from Dadaab and $200 upon arrival in Somalia, plus a six-month subsidy per household. “Everybody wants to take the money before being kicked out,” one refugee told us. “Maybe the government will beat us or set the camp on fire,” another said. A number of refugees spoke about threatening messages from Kenyan government officials that aired on the local radio station – messages such as, “We are going to show you the way to go back if you don’t go on your own.”
Kenya deserves to be criticized harshly for threatening to shutter the camps and push refugees out. But they are not the only ones at fault. Lofty commitments and declarations by the UN meant little as they did not translate to tangible improvements for people on the ground.