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Why Kenya will not shut down the world's largest refugee camp

by Rahul Oka, University of Notre Dame
Wednesday, 18 May 2016 17:11 GMT

In this 2011 file photo, an aerial view shows makeshift shelters at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border in Garissa County, Kenya. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kenyan government plans to close Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, will not happen because in Kenya true hospitality emerges when times are hard

It’s been widely reported that the Kenyan government plans to shut down Dadaab refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in the world. Reports have stated that the Kenyan government will not only shut down both the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, but also disband the Department of Refugee Affairs. 

Based on my experience in this African nation, and several recent interactions with those close to the situation, I know this simply will not happen. Not only because that action will be contrary to international laws, but because it is contrary to the hospitality and compassion of Kenyan peoples. 

I have been visiting Kenya for over 15 years now – sometimes several months at a time, studying the informal economy of the Kakuma refugee camp. And wherever I have been, in Kakuma and the rest of Kenya, I have been privileged to meet the warmest and most welcoming people I have known, exemplifying deep-seated ideas of hospitality that are passed through generations and across ethnic groups.  

Yes, Kenya has her problems as most other countries do. But shutting down the refugee camps is not something that most Kenyans would be comfortable with, beyond the usual firebrand conversation at a dinner table or while watching the weekly news. 

Yes, Kenyans have been subjected to violent acts of extremism, always blamed on external actors, including the militant group al Shabaab. Kenyans have responded to these acts by generating jokes on the situation, for example:

John: "Did you hear that a chicken was run over in Thika?" 

Paul: "Yes, the al Shabaab did it." 


John: "The milk curdled in two hours. How did that happen?"

Paul: "It must have been the al Shabaab."

For more than three years, these jokes have proliferated among the Kenyan people who retain their humour while also understanding that blaming the refugees for such acts might be part of a “Game of Thrones” as Kenya gears up for the 2017 elections. 

No, Kenya would not want to be known as the nation that turned its back on her neighbours. Even though the news release from the Kenyan government states that national security interests have forced this move, Kenyan hospitality does not end when things become difficult. 

It is precisely when things are difficult that the rules of hospitality apply even more. That is why the poorest of Kenyans will share their meals with you even though it means they will eat less.  

What are the concerns?

Unfortunately, both hospitality and compassion can be strained; not by the guests, but by the ways in which the host nations’ concerns are often ignored or minimised by the international community at large. Therefore, the world MUST recognise the legitimate concerns of the Kenyan people and their government - that hosting refugee populations is a hard task for a nation coming to grips with the geo-political economy of the 21st century, made especially so when the process has no end in sight.

Refugees come in across the borders, and they are hosted by the Kenyans in ways that are truly admirable. The contract is that refugees will stay there long enough for their cases to be resolved, whether it is repatriation or resettlement. 

However, Kenyans feel increasingly upset at the duration of average stay for the refugees as repatriation back to unstable countries of origin is often out of the question and the resettlement process could be outpaced by slow snails. 

It is a complex situation and the Kenyan government feels that they are not being listened to by the West and other donor nations, even as they struggle to cope with the growing numbers of refugees across East and Central Africa. They also see European nations violate international laws pertaining to refugee protection with impunity and wonder why African nations are held to a different standard.

They would like the West to do more in terms of helping in the refugee camp situation, as well as resettlement. They would also like the refugees’ countries of origin to resolve their own issues. But they are also aware that these processes have more chance of being speeded up in Disney World than in reality. 

And because elections are coming up, they also have to answer their own citizens' concerns, about safety, security, etc. So their response is not entirely political expediency.

And as always, the most disenfranchised stakeholders - the refugees - fall through the cracks of this very complex set of social and political phenomena. 

Lessons from Turkana

We need to move beyond the cynical response that this is merely Kenyan politicians gearing up for the 2017 elections by producing scapegoats; we need to consider their real concerns, not about the refugees but how their concerns are being ignored or minimised by the international community. 

While the reports of shutting down the camp are alarming, the Kenyan government should not be expected to hunker down and pretend as if there is no problem. While the UNHCR does an excellent job in trying to build safe spaces for the refugees, they are also faced with diminishing resources and donor fatigue. The whole world is dealing with diminishing public sympathy towards refugees, and Kenya as a major host nation has to deal with these issues.

The only solution, short of speeding up the resettlement/repatriation process in a safe and humane way, is for the international community to step up and provide both the UNHCR and the government of Kenya support and resources to host the refugees in a manner that will benefit both the refugees and the host communities.    

There is a lesson here, from the Turkana people in Northern Kenya. They live around Kakuma refugee camp, and as a community, are among the most impoverished and marginalised communities in the world. Long disenfranchised and excluded from mainstream Kenyan society, a process that goes back to British colonial times, the Turkana have hosted the refugees since 1992. Given their own suffering, it would be easy for the Turkana to scapegoat and turn on the refugees.  

But the Turkana of Kakuma have welcomed the refugees and built communities with the refugees. While their interactions are not without conflict, they have made friends, relations, and other alliances with the refugees. Occasional bursts of contention and conflict have rarely turned into outright violence where the Turkana have actively demanded or tried to force the refugee camp to leave. 

The Turkana continue to try and build lives of dignity for themselves and their children while coping with harsh environments, indifferent political systems, and the presence of 200,000 refugees. Yet, they know that their own laws of hospitality would not allow them to turn back on the refugees. They have seen too much of suffering to abandon those who also suffer at the hands of bigger forces than themselves. 

The Kenyan government has legitimate concerns with the refugee situation in their borders and these concerns should not be taken lightly. The UNHCR should not have to resolve this alone. The world needs to come forward and understand the concerns of hosting nations, the complexity of the situations in which the UNHCR and host governments operate, and the idea that no government, not least the Kenyan Government, would make such serious announcements if they did not feel that they are not being heard.

Despite the fact that the Kenyan government issued the statement that these camps or that only Dadaab will be shut down, I believe that will never happen. Because in Kenya, as the Turkana have exemplified, true hospitality emerges when times are hard, not when times are easy.  

Rahul Oka is the Ford Family Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.