People who live and work in refugee camps will be hardly surprised by the fact that militants may have been involved in the abduction of the two Spanish aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp this month.
Infiltration of refugee camps by militia is nothing new. The Goma refugee camp in eastern DRC was notorious for sheltering the Interahamwe fleeing the Rwandan Patriotic Front after it invaded Rwanda in 1994.
As Dutch journalist Linda Polman says in her book, The Crisis Caravan, refugee camps are often used by militia to recuperate and regroup.
In Goma, so-called refugees regrouped to organise their next offensive. In return, they got free food, medical care and shelter from the United Nations.
Dadaab presents a huge threat to Kenyan security. Like Goma, the refugee camp is probably crawling with militia. What better way for al Shabaab to penetrate Kenya’s borders than to become refugees within our borders?
A 2008 United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia report noted that “members of Shabaab and Hizbul Islam travel with relative freedom to and from Nairobi, where they raise funds, engage in recruitment, and obtain treatment for wounded fighters.”
If Kenya is to win the war against the militias, it must remove al Shabaab from the camp. And it should be looking for al Shabaab agents living in our midst undetected in various towns.
Dadaab is also the site of various nefarious and illegal activities that directly impact Kenya. According to the recently-published report, Termites at Work, by the International Peace Institute, some of the arms trafficked from Somalia are first “stored” in the Dadaab refugee camp while traffickers plan their next move.
From Dadaab, the arms end up via neighbouring Garissa in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate or in the Mukuru Kayaba slums.
“Arms traffickers have a sophisticated smuggling system that links Somalia with the refugee camp and with Nairobi,” says the report, which was launched in Nairobi recently.
The Dadaab camp is also the site of human and other forms of trafficking, as is the southern Somali port of Kismayu, a stronghold of al Shabaab.
Corrupt aid workers and government officials could inadvertently be easing the movement of al Shabaab within Kenya.
The IPI report says arms smugglers bribe their way through police checkpoints, and in some cases, UN employees sell migration slots for genuine refugees to people seeking to migrate to other countries.
Officials from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, say that the responsibility of screening refugees arriving at Dadaab lies with the Kenya Government. But even if this is so, can the UNHCR explain why all these illegal activities are occurring under its watch and in a camp it manages?
Moreover, there is the question of identifying al Shabaab. Do police at the Kenya-Somali border have names, faces and identities of known members of the terrorist group? What distinguishes a terrorist from a genuine refugee?
All al Qaeda terrorists who have so far been captured around the world look like “normal” young men. Many do not even look particularly dangerous. In fact, most have perfected the art of blending into the community in which they reside. In Dadaab, they have blended with the refugees.
What’s worse, there is a high possibility that many of these so-called refugees have already left the camp and have infiltrated Kenyan cities and towns.
There is no reason why a refugee camp should exist for 20 years. A refugee camp is supposed to be a temporary measure; it is not supposed to become a permanent settlement, as Dadaab has become.
Originally designed for 90,000 people, Dadaab currently hosts more than half a million refugees, making it the most populous such camp in the world.
Over the last 20 years, since the civil war in Somalia, the camp has grown into a self-contained township complete with schools, a hospital, shops, bars, butcheries and even “hotels”. In other words, it has started to look like a small town.
In my opinion, the Kenya Government and the UN should work towards scaling down operations in Dadaab and ultimately closing the camp altogether.
This may contravene Kenya’s international obligations, but the facts cited above are disturbing enough to warrant such an action.