The United Nations has termed it unfortunate.
Yet the decision to repatriate Somali refugees and close down Dadaab Refugee Camp did not fall from the sky. Speaking with various diplomatic sources, both within and outside government, has revealed five main reasons behind the closure.
1) Listing of Kenyan airspace as risky
President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly banged the table in frustration when Chief of Staff Joseph Kinyua alerted him that the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had notified the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) to classify Kenya’s airspace as unsafe.
Asking ICAO to list Kenya in the Conflict Zone Information Repository would put her airspace in the league of Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and South Sudan; unsafe.
The US government has since explained that this decision was for “purposes of information only”, but sources have told the Nation this was the main catalyst to close Dadaab. For one, the United States cited potential terrorist attacks on aircraft flying below 26,000 feet and Kenya's repeated claims about Dadaab harbouring terror sympathisers.
“As a result of insecurity created by existence of refugee camps, Kenya suffers the brunt of negative consequences such as travel advisories and poor humanitarian rating, with obvious negative consequences to the country’s economy,” Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery told reporters when he announced a closure programme for the camp.
There is more. About 40 international airlines operate flights into Kenya and hundreds more use its airspace when going elsewhere. Each international flight using Kenyan airspace pays about $300 for navigation services to the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.
In a year, Kenya collects about Sh500 million in air navigation fees. By filing a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), pilots are alerted of potential hazards in Kenyan airspace, which could chase them away altogether.
Sources say President Kenyatta was incensed that Kenya’s burden of hosting refugees was being rewarded with punishment, and so he instructed his team to start closing the camp.
2) Threats to national security, including terrorism
Kenya has insisted that Dadaab refugee camp harbours terror merchants, drug traffickers and smugglers. While there has been scanty evidence to pin these crimes on specific refugees, Kenyan police have previously found small weapons in the camp.
The country spends about Sh1.2 billion on policing the camps while receiving Sh300 million in donor support. This is costly, according to Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery.
Last month, the 590th meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council agreed with Kenya that Dadaab is a security threat. A communique released after the meeting noted:
The Council reiterates that no refugee camp should assume a permanent existence. In this respect, Council urgently calls for practical measures to accelerate the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in safety and dignity, to the liberated areas and safe locations inside Somalia.
That gave Kenya some ammunition to push the urgent closure through. In fact, CS Nkaissery cited this report and argued the decision was based on camps becoming “hosting grounds for al-Shabaab as well as centres for smuggling and contraband trade.”
In addition, Kenya fears that the absence of Amisom troops in the Gedo region of Somalia is a threat to areas near the camp which could be infiltrated. Closing it, Kenya argues, is a solution.
3) Low international support for refugee repatriation
In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, signed an agreement (to expire in November this year) to have Somalia refugees repatriated. But out of the 400,000, just about 14,000 were repatriated through this programme although another 60,000 went back on their own.
The programme suffered financial problems from the start. UNHCR itself has admitted it will not be able to repatriate all the refugees by the expiry date.
Even though UNHCR, Kenya and Somalia organised a donor pledging conference at the European Headquarters in Brussels last October, donors only pledged a fifth of their initial target of Sh50 billion. It is one thing to pledge and another to disburse the money.
“There has been a very slow progress on the implementation of the agreement. As part of concluding this arrangement, Kenya is committed to close Dadaab Refugee Complex,” declared Nkaissery.
In February, Kenyan officials went back to Brussels to seek further support for the programme. “We were telling them if you fail, our capacity will give in. But they just sympathised with us. They suggested that we search for durable solutions like integration,” one Kenyan diplomat familiar with the politics told the Sunday Nation recently.
In April, during the African Union Peace and Security meeting on the situation at Dadaab refugee camp, a suggestion was raised to grant Somali refugees citizenship. Kenya declined, but its representatives concluded there was no “readiness” to end the Somali chaos, according to the diplomat.
3) Potential for more money
Foreign Affairs CS Amina Mohamed argues the amount of money Kenya receives towards refugees is very little. “If you look at what refugees elsewhere get, our funding is very minimal,” she explained.
But now there is an opportunity. The World Humanitarian Summit which started Monday in Istanbul, Turkey, brings world leaders from states, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations “to stand up for our common humanity and take action to prevent and reduce human suffering”, according to a provisional programme posted on its website.
But it also offers a platform to argue for more funding. Deputy President William Ruto is expected to represent Kenya here and he may use this platform to explain why low funding has been a catalyst to closing the camp.
There is indeed potential for money. In March this year, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. For Turkey’s hosting of refugees, the country gets about $6.6 billion (Sh660 billion), its nationals get visa-free travel into Europe, and talks to have Turkey join the EU are restarted.
Given that Kenya hosts the largest refugee camp in the world, it may attract similar offers by threatening to close the camp.
4) Kenya feels Dadaab has overstayed
Kenya has hosted refugees from Somalia at the Dadaab refugee camp for 25 years, receiving praise from international organisations. In fact, Kenyans are among those considered most welcoming to refugees, according to an Amnesty International report which calls for the government do do more.
That patience seems to have run out.