President Uhuru Kenyatta says the Dadaab refugee complex will have to be closed for the good of the region, in spite of incessant campaigns by rights groups to have the plan abandoned.
At a joint press conference with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, President Kenyatta argued the camp as it is today no longer serves its original purpose of offering temporary shelter.
“Our policy has been clear for some time: The events that led to the establishment of Dadaab are terribly tragic and the best response to that tragedy is to help refugees to return and rebuild their nation,” he said at State House, Nairobi.
“And that is Kenya’s policy and our efforts to hasten repatriation and resettlement of refugees. But as always, these efforts shall remain guided by relevant domestic and international laws.”
But Mr Guterres, touring the region for the first time, after taking over as the 9th UN chief, said he had had had “positive” discussions with the Kenyan President on various issues affecting the Horn of Africa.
With drought ravaging the region, the UN has put up a $4 billion funding appeal to deal with the crisis that has affected Kenya, Somalia, parts of Ethiopia and South Sudan.
On Tuesday, he was in Mogadishu where he raised the alarm of a possible famine if new funding is not met.
On Wednesday, he was in Nairobi where he declared “total support” for efforts to combat drought in the country.
But the former head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also knows he has to plead with Kenya not to send back refugees just yet.
President Kenyatta spoke just weeks after the High Court in Nairobi ruled that the planned repatriation of refugees would be unconstitutional.
Justice John Mativo ruled that Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery and his PS Karanja Kibicho had no powers to order closure of the camp, despite claims that there were serious security, environmental and economic concerns.
The government initially said it would appeal the decision.
On Wednesday, the President said his government would continue to discuss the matter with stakeholders to find a possible solution.
On March 25, Nairobi will be hosting an extra-ordinary summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), a regional bloc of eight countries in the eastern Africa.
“The conference shows that Kenya is willing to consult and ready to listen to views from those who wish Somalia, and indeed our entire region, well,” the President said.
Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world by population.
At one time in 2011, it hosted up to 500,000 people mostly Somali refugees fleeing both violence and drought.
That number has since dropped to 260,000, according to February figures from the UNHCR.
In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement to have the refugees voluntarily returned.
But the challenge of funds, and the problem of convincing them to leave, meant the three-year agreement could not be met.
In February, UNHCR said the target for voluntary repatriation would be met as there are about 2,000 refugees leaving the camp every week on their own.
Kenya had argued the camp needed to be closed as soon as possible to eliminate the security threat it poses.
Humanitarian agencies think different.