The government has extended the deadline for closing the Dadaab refugee complex in what it said was the “delicate security situation in Somalia.”
Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery on Wednesday told a media briefing in Nairobi that Kenya was postponing the closure following a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The government has accepted the request to extend the deadline for the completion of voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees and the eventual closure of the Dadaab Refugee Camp by six months,” Mr Nkaissery said.
“However, ongoing voluntary repatriation will continue uninterrupted.”
This means that the largest refugee camp in the world will no longer be shut down on November 30 as announced in May.
It also means that the tripartite agreement signed between Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR to have Somali refugees repatriated by the end of this year will elapse, after just a tenth of the refugees at the camp had been relocated.
That means, too, that the current push-and-pull between the government and human rights organisations will be put on the ice for a while.
The government on Wednesday issued an outline of events to be conducted in the next six months that it said will culminate in the eventual closure of the camp.
From December, the UNHCR and Kenya will “clear the double registration” of Kenyans who had registered as refugees before the government relocates all non-Somali refugees from Dadaab to Kakuma in Turkana County.
Mr Nkaissery said Somali refugees will have been returned by April before an environmental rehabilitation programme begins to reclaim the land the camp occupies.
But whether voluntary return can have deadlines is subject to debate. The decision to close the camp, thought to host about 262,000 refugees, had been controversial.
In May, Mr Nkaissery announced the government was shutting down the camp by November, citing security, environmental and economic concerns, and accused the international donors of doing little to support refugees.
The UNHCR and rights groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had publicly condemned the move.
On Wednesday, Mr Nkaissery insisted the “decision to close Dadaab was based on serious security considerations.”
The Jubilee government put Sh1 billion into the programme meant to hasten the closure, and appointed a special task force to look into ways of doing so.
“We are using the money as per the budget and the programme. So that money is being used for transport and accommodation. It is not we who are extending but it is the international community that has made the request,” Mr Nkaissery said on whether the government was backing away from the plan entirely and what the money had been spent on so far.
By extending the deadline, it means the government has also realised the difficulty of closing the camp anyway.
This is the second time the government has postponed the announced closure. Last year, human rights organisations, donors and the UNCHR publicly said they won’t be part of a programme that looked like a forced relocation.
Relocating refugees could cost up to Sh10 billion in logistics and settlement.
Ever since the tripartite agreement was signed in September 2013, just about 28,799 refugees have been returned voluntarily. The others, the UNHCR says, have either returned to Somalia on their own or left the camp for other countries.
But there are reports that some of those who went back have returned to the camp secretly after they found life there difficult.
A report published this week by Amnesty International, Nowhere Else To Go, accused government officials of forcing refugees to go or threatening to deny them financial assistance once the deadline elapsed.
“In an effort to coerce people to make what could be passed off as a voluntary return, government officials have told refugees in Dadaab that if they do not go back before the 30 November deadline they risk not getting the financial support package of US$400,” says the report, the result of interviews with 56 refugees at Dadaab.
“Amnesty International and other organisations have questioned whether these returns are truly voluntary in light of the pressure being brought to bear in Dadaab, but also because of insufficient and misleading information about the returns process and the security situation in Somalia.”
As part of the voluntary programme, the Kenyan government provides security escort, the UNHCR provides financial assistance while Somalia organises relocation and local settlement.
Those traveling by air get Sh20,000 with which to start life while those going by road are given Sh15,000.
Both Somalia and the UNHCR say there is insufficient security on the ground.
“We welcome the decision to extend the deadline. We are willing and ready to receive our people. All we are doing is to improve our capacity and modalities to accommodate our people,” said Gamal Hassan, the Somalia ambassador to Kenya.