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Battle for refugees as cartels fight bid to close Dadaab

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Government’s decision to repatriate refugees to Somalia is facing stiff resistance from high profile business and political figures, we can report.

Those opposing the plans include key players in cartels thriving on the ‘aid economy’ and a section of politicians largely from North Eastern Kenya.

They have joined a chorus of disapproval from human rights activists who say nobody should be forced to go back to Somalia against their will.

The reservations of those who say the country is not safe have now been bolstered by the departure of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) this week, citing rampant insecurity.

Officials in the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), an arm of the Immigration ministry, intimated that the cartels are trying to protect multi-billion shilling business interests. Specifically, they are unhappy with plans to close camps housing about 500,000 people that make Dadaab Kenya’s third largest town.

Some politicians in the region have also used the presence of refugees for their own ends and fear their repatriation could hurt them politically.

Investigations by The Standard On Saturday have identified businessmen that operate largely from Nairobi’s Eastleigh area and use rogue Government officers to acquire Kenyan citizenship for refugees.

The transactions involve huge sums of money as bribes and commissions. Other groups make money smuggling goods for sale in the region or trading legitimately with the various charities and aid agencies that operate in the area.

The UN refugee agency alone kicks in some $160 million (around Sh14 billion) a year to its operations in Kenya, with some of the money going to local businesses. A recent report prepared for Kenya, Denmark and Norway estimated that local communities earn $15 million (Sh1.3 billion) every year from the Dadaab camps alone.

The Government has decided to repatriate all Somali refugees following restoration of peace and rule of law in the in troubled Horn of Africa country.

Last week, The Standard On Saturday established that a team of MPs with an interest in the refugee presence in Kenya went to see a powerful Cabinet Secretary in an attempt to slow down the repatriation.

However, the Principal Secretary in the ministry held his ground saying the decision had been taken by the Government and will be implemented as expected.

There are more than 500,000 Somali refugees who have been in the country for the last 23 years under the protection of the Government and various United Nations bodies, among them the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Government officials have faced an uphill battle in their attempts to begin the planned repatriation.

Last year, the DRA closed all registrations and issued a directive to 55,000 refugees in urban areas to return to the camps ahead of the repatriation plan. The announcement sparked off raids on Eastleigh by police in which hundreds were allegedly robbed and abused.

A High Court judge has since ruled the directive as unconstitutional. Reflecting the concerns of human rights activists, the Government has since switched to a less aggressive push to begin the relocation. However, they say resistance is strong from people with vested interests in keeping the refugees in the country.

Commissioner for Refugee Affairs Badu Katelo confirmed that “selfish and unpatriotic individuals” who have been benefitting from the presence of refugees in the country were fighting the Government’s plan. “That is our main challenge in this repatriation process,” he said. “Refugee affairs is a big industry, with a lot of businesses revolving around it. Those benefitting from the resources involved are bound to fight back because refugee presence in Kenya is their lifeline.

“A case in point is that of people who smuggle refugees and other conmen who illegally obtain money from them under the pretext that they can help them obtain essential immigrations documents,” he said.

Kenya hosts 601,967 refugees, of whom 511,672 (85 per cent) are from Somalia. Police efforts to move them from urban areas in the last two years have caused apprehension with claims of torture, rape and extortion.

“The long and short of it is that the Government has taken a position that Somali refugees will be repatriated,” he added, saying he expected the refugees to be “sensible” about the move. “We want to take them back so that they can participate in the development of their country.”

Battles to protect thriving businesses that depend on refugees have been blamed for the continuing presence of tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees at the Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya.

There are plans to create a tripartite commission on repatriation involving UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia to look into the current challenges.

It will take the lead overseeing the relocation of refugees after an international conference on repatriation and integration to be held on August 28.

The tripartite body, which refugee stakeholders support, will also sign an agreement on a legal framework for repatriation, carry out resource mobilisation and organise information campaigns.

The Department of Refugee Affairs has been holding several meetings to prepare for the repatriation. Stakeholders have been meeting every Thursday over the last year to come up with an initial plan.

Government officials are now convinced that following successful elections in Somalia and the stability brought by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) operations, the return of Somali refugees can begin. Critics, however, say parts of the country are still under Al-Shabaab and other Islamic militants and say refugees should not be forced to relocate against their will.

Kenya is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee convention and 1969 OAU convention of refugee protection. The same has been domesticated into the Aefugee Act of 2006. The Government took over reception and registration of asylum seekers from UNHCR on March 1, 2011, in accordance with the provisions of section 7 (2) (i) of the Refugee Act 2006.


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