Closing Dadaab: An Omen for Kenya’s 2017 Election


In early May, Kenya’s Ministry of Interior announced the government intended to repatriate all of its nearly 600,000 hosted refugees and close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Kenya had previously utilized extreme rhetoric regarding refugees, but unlike previous threats, this one was accompanied with legitimizing steps – the dissolution of the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) and an unrealistic timeline that schedules full “voluntary” repatriation by the end of the year. The Kenyan government used economic burden and security risk to justify the decision, yet closing Dadaab would almost certainly make both of these issues worse. What it will do is 1) give Kenya’s ruling coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, the appearance of a hardline stance against terrorism and 2) provide an influx of foreign aid ahead of Kenya’s 2017 elections.

What is Dadaab?


Photo Credit: The Washington Post

Dadaab refugee camp was founded in the early 1990’s to host the influx of refugees after the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the start of the Somali civil war. While originally intended as a temporary shelter for around 90,000, Dadaab is vastly overcrowded and comprised primarily of Somali refugees. The ongoing conflict in Somalia as well as prolonged regional drought and famine have caused the camp’s population to swell to over 400,000 at points. Dadaab hosts three generations of people, some of whom have lived their whole lives there.

With the most globally displaced people in history, the camp subsists on an ever-thinning supply of aid. Dadaab has long been underfunded (less than 30% funded for the 2016 year), which means residents must find other ways to supplement rations. In an effort to discourage refugees from remaining, the Kenyan government prevents refugees from legally participating in the economy outside the refugee camp. Nonetheless, a highly lucrative black market has developed that represents a quarter of Northeastern Kenya’s economy, or about 20 million Euros per year.

Dadaab and Kenyan politics

Refugees are by nature political and predictably remain a contentious issue in Kenya. A wave of Al-Shabaab terror attacks – most notably the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the shootings at Garissa University in 2015 – has increased anti-refugee sentiments among Kenyans. Al-Shabaab, an insurgent terrorist group based in Somalia, is notorious for its forced recruitment, sexual violence, and use of child soldiers – a reason many refugees chose to flee in the first place. Al-Shabaab has developed a “shadowy” presence within Dadaab, kidnapping aid workers and terrorizing residents. However, this presence has been exaggerated by both the Kenyan government and foreign war hawks.


Photo Credit: The Human Rights Watch

In an official statement, the Ministry of Interior’s Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, supported the planned closure of Dadaab, renouncing it as a breeding ground for terrorism and maintaining that the safety of Kenyan citizens must be the primary concern of policymakers. Dadaab has been a useful deflection tool for the the government to avoid embarrassment. Depicting refugees as an inherent security risk allows politicians to shift blame for terrorism onto refugees as opposed to government corruption or incompetence. Refugees themselves are the worst affected as they suffer from both the terrorism and the resulting security crackdown because of perceptions that they are prone to radicalization.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing a severe drought, and refugees are often described as leaching resources that should be allocated for Kenyans in need. In his statement, Nkaissery also asserted “what is worse is that Kenyans have to pay for water while refugees get it for free.” This is a political tactic that gives marginalized groups a concrete competitor for limited resources. Poor Kenyans resent refugees – who they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs – as opposed to ineffective government leaders and policies.

Why did the Kenyan government decide to repatriate refugees?

In 2013, Somalia, Kenya, and the UN signed a tripartite agreement, which sponsored the voluntary repatriation of refugees to Somalia. While designed to abide by international law and ensure only voluntary repatriation, the new agreement failed to live up to such aspirations. It, instead, served as a precedent for forced deportations and was quickly suspended as the logistics of the agreement were never sufficiently negotiated. After the failure of this agreement, Kenya decided to expedite the process by closing Dadaab, again justifying the move with security risk and economic burden.

Photo Credit: CARE

However, returning Somali refugees has every potential to make Kenya’s security issues deteriorate. While it is true that Somalia has grown more stable in recent years, the bar to surpass was rather low; the Somali Civil War led to anarchy for two decades before the Federal Government of Somalia was established in 2012. Al-Shabaab now controls less than 10% of Somalia, which is promising; however, the country is in the midst of a food crisis and the fledgling government is still largely dependent on foreign aid for stability. Returning over 200,000 vulnerable people to Somalia, which has neither the resources nor infrastructure to support them, would result in a humanitarian tragedy and easy pickings for Al-Shabaab recruiters. If Kenyan policymakers truly wished to address security concerns, it would not do so through a haphazard repatriation.

But what about economic burden? Dadaab is now the 3rd largest city in Kenya and, according to a 2010 study, adds a conservative estimate of about $14 million in net benefits to the regional economy. Shutting down the camp would significantly impact Northeastern Kenya’s economy, which has already caused concern among some locals. A renewed Al-Shabaab would also only add further monetary and political costs for Kenya. So if neither of these claims stack up, what gives? Election politics.

The 2017 Election

The incumbent President, Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Alliance, seeks re-election in the upcoming 2017 election cycle. Both of the last two elections held in Kenya have been disputed, and violence following the 2007 election killed up to 1400 people. Kenyatta was charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for inciting post-election violence in 2007, but these charges were dropped to do lack of evidence. Raila Odinga, the primary opponent in 2007 and 2013, is expected to run for a third attempt in 2017. With corruption rife under Kenyatta’s regime, there is little faith that the upcoming elections will be legitimate. Opposition supporters have been holding weekly protests against the electoral commission (IEBC) – one of which turned violent in late June. The Institute for Security Studies has already released an ill-boding report, stating that the political climate is strikingly similar to the one before the 2007 election. But how does Dadaab relate to this?


Photo Credit: The New York Times

For one, over of Kenyans support closing Dadaab, and the move will positively affect base voter perception. It also reflects well on the governance practices of the ruling coalition:

  1. Closing Dadaab makes the Jubilee Alliance appear effective both by “solving” a crisis that has persisted for decades and addressing Kenyans’ grievances.
  2. Policy makers also appear tough and competent in fighting the “source” of terrorism despite waffling policies and poor border control.
  3. Lastly, the government appears assertive internationally. Closing Dadaab is unprecedented, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have argued that it’s a violation of international law. Even Ban Ki-Moon, the UN’s Secretary General, appealed President Kenyatta not to close the camp. Nonetheless, Kenya pushed forward and eventually received a nod from the UN.

Alongside drumming up voter support, the move will presumptively fill government coffers. Following President Kenyatta’s appeal to the international community, Kenya has received or will receive international assistance from the World Bank, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the UN, among others. With systematic corruption and just 1.2% of Kenya’s 2013-2014 government budget accounted for, it is not a stretch to speculate that at least a portion of these funds will be misappropriated for nefarious uses. Spending for the 2017 elections has been capped by the IEBC, but this will likely be poorly regulated.

Where does this leave Kenyans and refugees?

While repatriation for refugees is supposed to be voluntary, this notion is counterintuitive, considering the compulsory nature of Dadaab’s closure.  Refugees are left with little choice but to return to Somalia, and there have already been reports of coercions and forced deportations to insecure areas. If plans to close the camp move forward, it would result in devastating human loss and renewed instability.

The government’s decision to close the camp is reckless at best: policymakers have decided to value their short-term goals (re-election) over the long-term consequences for both Kenyan citizens and refugees. In order for everyone to win, one of two outcomes must occur: 1) the attempts to repatriate refugees are unsuccessful and the camp remains open or 2) the timeline is extended until Somalia is stabilized. With either of these outcomes, the government can reap the short-term benefits of the election, and a massive crisis is averted. If the government fails to facilitate one of these outcomes and charges forward with repatriation, Kenyans are left with policy makers that hold no value in public interest. Such negligence provides signals for future political and economic decay as well as regional instability.


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