Photo: “On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition”, Oxfam East Africa, photo by Andy Hall, taken on 25 July 2011.
Dadaab is a desert scrubland town in Garissa County of northeast Kenya, bordering Somalia. It houses the world’s largest refugee complex.
In 1991 a coalition of clan-based rebel groups overthrew the dictator Siad Barre and freed the people of Somalia after a decade long civil war. But the clan leaders could not consolidate their gains and reestablish rule of law. Instead, they fought among themselves for power. As the cumulative effect of clan conflicts and civil war, the economy collapsed and life and property became insecure.
It’s 2016. The civil war still continues in Somalia.
Refugees from Somalia began to arrive in Dadaab in 1992 when the camps at Hagadera, Dagahaley and Ifo were setup. In 2011 more camps were added at Ifo II and Kambioos to accommodate people fleeing from drought and famine.
The Dadaab camps are managed by the UNHCR, ably supported by other aid agencies. In the course of time, the complex has grown like a chaotic town full of slums. Refugees live in tents and huts.
To add fuel to fire, the jihadist group Al Shabaab bombed, maimed and killed civilians and others in Somalia. They disrupted and destroyed life and property as never before. And they scored major military victories throughout 2007 and 2008. And they controlled vast swathes of land in southern Somalia. Their brutalities forced many more people to flee to Dadaab.
People coming from Somalia were starving and malnourished. Though, generally, food and other supplies are rationed on priority to children, many of them die due to malnutrition and infections.
In conflicts of this scale, the first casualty is always children, followed by the weak and old aged.
In November 2013, following the attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall by Al Shabaab, Kenya pushed for the repatriation of refugees. Consequently, a tripartite agreement was signed in Mogadishu by Somalia, Kenya and UNHCR to facilitate voluntary repatriation of refugees.
According to the agreement and assisted by the repatriation package, some people have gone back but many of them now want to return to the camps as they find life in the camps far better and more secure than in Somalia.
Following the Garissa University College attack in 2015 by Al Shabaab, the Kenyan government asked UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to their home country. In May 2016, Kenya unilaterally decided to shut down the camps by the end of November 2016.
Kenya alleges that the jihadist group sourced new recruits from Dadaab and that they are using the camps as terrorist training grounds.
However, there has been international pressure on Kenya to allow the refugees to stay in the camps, and the UNHCR regards it as an irresponsible decision by Kenya.
However, the Kenyan government announced on Wednesday that, in response to the UNHCR request, it would extend the deadline to close the camps by six months, adding that voluntary repatriation will continue.
It’s alleged that refugees are coerced to return. A survey revealed that only 25% are willing to return.
The civil war there is still going on in Somalia. The government is struggling to put the failed economy back on rails. Life there is appalling. There are no jobs, no food to eat. Under these conditions, coerced repatriation will only expose the youth to radicalization.
And, forced repatriation violates the refugees’ basic human rights.