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Kenya denies planning to close world's largest Somalia refugee camp at Dadaab
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Government denies it is intending to shut Dadaab camp at London conference.
The Kenyan government has denied it is planning to close the world's largest refugee camp, playing down suggestions that President Mwai Kibaki might do so during his visit to London.
Kibaki is currently in the UK for a three-day conference with David Cameron.
Almost half a million Somalis live in the Dadaab camp, 60 miles from the Somalian border. Numbers in the camp grew steadily last year as famine gripped the region.
Aid workers say any return of refugees to Somalia must be voluntary, and that some people have already gone back to their farms after good rains, hoping to rebuild lives devastated by last year's drought and famine and by decades of conflict.
Ahead of the London conference, there had been some speculation that Kibaki might make an announcement about Dadaab at the meeting.
One aid official in Nairobi, speaking anonymously, said there was concern a statement might be "unpalatable" to the humanitarian community.
In January the permanent secretary to Kenya's ministry of internal security said the country intended to begin preparing to relocate refugees to Somalia.
Dadaab has long been a drain on Kenya's resources and government officials, including Kibaki, have previously called for refugees to be resettled in Somalia or elsewhere.
But a Kenyan government spokesman denied there were plans to close Dadaab, home to about 463,000 mainly Somali refugees.
Spokesman Alfred Mutua said any returns would be voluntary and carried out with the UN high commission for refugees (UNHCR).
He said the refugees were just a symptom of a wider problem, which Kenya wanted to treat. "We don't want to deal with the symptoms. We want to deal with the problem and the problem is an unstable Somalia," he said.
Dadaab, which was set up in 1991 when civil war and drought ravaged Somalia, is the only home some refugees have ever known: they were born in the camp and their children have also been born there.
The camp is on the frontline of war. Kenya has sent troops into Somalia to push back the al-Shabaab militia.
Police vehicles have been blown up and several officers killed inside the camp and in surrounding areas. Arms caches have also been found among the tents, and Human Rights Watch has accused Kenyan police of beating, raping and detaining refugees and ethnic Somalis in the area.
Many NGOs have pulled staff out of Dadaab and conditions are now inhumane, aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a report last week. Two Spanish doctors working for MSF were kidnapped from Dadaab last October.
MSF said: "While longer term solutions should be considered, today's reality is that hundreds of thousands of refugees depend on the aid system and the host government to ensure their human rights are respected.
"Until this happens, the health of the refugees will continue to deteriorate with life-threatening consequences, with aid organisations helplessly watching this situation."
Somali refugees in Dadaab might be forgiven for not expecting much from the London conference – just the latest attempt by the international community to stabilise a country described by British officials as "the world's most failed state".
Some are taking matters into their own hands: UNHCR says about 7,000 have returned home in recent months from camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Most of those leaving are men, with women and children staying behind, waiting for the certainty of a security that has so long eluded their country.
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