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Somali Refugees Decry Calls to Close Refugee Camps in Kenya

Friday, October 11, 2013

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Garissa — Saadia Ahmed Hussein, 42, said Somali refugees living in Kenyan camps should be left to return home voluntarily and "on a good note".

Hussein left Somalia in 1993 and now lives in the Hagadera camp in Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya. Dadaab is home to about 390,000 people, many of them Somalis who have lived there for upwards of twenty years.

"I am grateful for the welcome we as Somalis received, [but] I am more than willing to go back home," she told Sabahi. "I arrived in Kenya on a very sore note after losing four of my family members including both parents to the war, but I want to go back there on a good note."

Hussein said the calls by some Kenyan government officials for the closure of refugee camps over concerns that the facilities are being used as terrorist "training grounds" is in bad faith.

"It is not a good thing to be in the camp, and the majority of us have been anxiously waiting for the day we will return to our motherland and rebuild our lives," she said, adding that the Kenyan government does not need to force refugees out of the camps.

She said most of the refugee population is law abiding.

"We feel the Kenyan agony [over terrorism] because it impacts us directly," she said. "But the majority of the refugees should not suffer because of a few misguided individuals who have joined al-Shabaab."

Yusuf Mukhtar Abdille, a 45-year-old who also lives in Hagadera camp, said that if the government closes Dadaab it would be a double blow for refugees who were forced to leave urban areas earlier this year.

"In June I heeded the government call to leave Garissa town following a directive that required all refugees in urban areas to return to the [designated] camps," he told Sabahi.

"I have barely settled well and now the government wants to close the camps," he said. "With this new call, it is becoming apparent that the government directive to move us from urban areas was not well intentioned."

In the wake of al-Shabaab's attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, head of the parliamentary defence committee Ndung'u Gethenji called for closing the camps.

Kenya has to rethink "its hospitality in supporting refugee camps within our borders", Gethenji said September 30th.

In response, Amnesty International criticised the government's calls for closing the refugee camps, saying Somalia has not yet reached a level of security that could justify large-scale refugee return.

"Kenya is under an obligation to protect those seeking asylum on its territory. This principle is the cornerstone of the international protection system and cannot be flouted," said Amnesty International Deputy Director for Africa Sarah Jackson.

"Returning refugees to Somalia, where all parties to the conflict, including al-Shabaab, continue to carry out attacks against civilians, would only make matters worse and would be in violation of international law," she said.

Nonetheless, Gethenji reiterated his position, saying that closing the camps would be one way of addressing rampant terrorist attacks in the country.

"The camps have overstepped their purpose," Gethenji told Sabahi. "Now they are recruiting, hiding and training grounds for terrorists. In any case, the camps were supposed to be for short term measures."

He said his committee would deliberate the situation further before presenting its case to parliament sometime in October.

"We have had several opportunities to close the camps previously but each time there has been calls for more time," he said.

But former Deputy Speaker of Kenya's National Assembly Farah Maalim Mohamed said the government should not be in a haste to close the camps while there are ongoing talks for orderly relocation of refugees.

Maalim, who also represented Lagdera constituency in Garissa County where the refugee complex stretches, said the repatriation process needs to ensure a smooth transition.

"Those calling for the closure of the refugee camps are not well versed with international protections that are in place for refugees," Maalim told Sabahi. "It will not be like closing camps for internally displaced persons. The international community has to be involved and it has to be voluntary."


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