The right to asylum is at stake

LWF staff member John Ekamais, right, with one of the new arrivals at the Kakuma reception center. Photo: LWF/James Macharia
LWF staff member John Ekamais, right, with one of the new arrivals at the Kakuma reception center. Photo: LWF/James Macharia

LWF World Service Kenya - Djibouti Program representative Lennart Hernander urges leaders to put human rights at the fore of decisions concerning refugee camps in Kenya.


The process concerning the future of refugees in Kenya continues. The UN Security Council, the UN General Secretary, the UN refugee organization, UNHCR, several donor countries (United States and, Canada most notably), the Somali Government, as well as the Catholic Bishops in Kenya, various human rights groups and Members of Parliament forming a Human Rights caucus have all asked the Kenyan Government to reconsider its decision to close all the refugee camps and repatriate all refugees to their countries of origin. So far the Government of Kenya has remained firm that the camps – first and foremost Dadaab refugee camps – shall be closed and refugees – first of all Somali refugees – shall be repatriated.

350,000 people

Various timelines have been given. May 2017 has been mentioned but President Uhuru Kenyatta has talked of November this year as the deadline for all Somali refugees to be repatriated and Dadaab camps to be closed. Regardless, it is a daunting task indeed considering it is 350,000 people who need to be moved, for the most part against their will.

Media has carried the news that the US has “filed an advisory with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that the Kenyan airspace is unsafe.”Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, concludes that “Kenya is the only stable country other than Saudi Arabia that has been listed as having dangerous airspace. USA has grouped our country with countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.” and states that, “This position directly supports the Kenyan government’s prime reason for closing the Somalia refugee camps. It is therefore doublespeak for the US to oppose Kenya government efforts to deal with the terrorist problem yet on the other hand claim that Kenya was unsafe due to terrorism.”

This is one aspect we need to understand: there is a very strong feeling among many Kenyans that (1) the Somali refugees are a threat to Kenyan security and (2) that ‘Western nations’ apply double standards when they ask Kenya and other countries to host refugees, but at the same time clearly show they are not willing to do the same. It is also to some extent a matter of money, as less money is allocated to Kenya (and others), when more money is spent in Europe to close borders and manage refugee arrivals. Less money has also been provided for African Union peacekeeping troops fighting in Somalia, and the conferences to raise funds for Somalia to stabilize the country have been disappointing. Kenya feel that ‘the West’ now pays less attention and money, does less, demands more and at the same time the human price, especially in the form of Kenyan Defense Force casualties in Somalia, has increased.

Exactly how the security of Kenya is threatened by the Dadaab camps is unclear. No refugee is among any suspected terrorists, no refugee has been linked to terrorist activities. But the Government says it has proof that at least two terrorist attacks have been planned in Dadaab camps and that some terrorist have been hiding in Dadaab. It therefore seems that the core issue is more about the camps and the fact that 350,000 Somalis are packed in a one place (or five camps) making it rather easy for a few Somali terrorists to hide there, than it is about the people who are genuine refugees.

Security, economy and the environment

The reasons given for closing the camps are security, economic cost and environmental degradation. Most analysis concludes that the cost argument is only partially valid. The camps do have a cost but almost all of it is paid by humanitarian organizations, donors and the UN. The camps also contribute to the economy, especially locally around the camps. The security argument is the one most often given by the Government. Most will agree there is indeed a challenge to the security in Kenya, and that the camps contribute. But almost nobody, except the Government, sees closing the camps as a step towards improved security. Most will argue that closing the camps and repatriating the refugees hastily, unplanned and against their will further destabilize Somalia and probably decrease security. Environmental degradation was initially mentioned and is in my view correct and a strong argument against camps. With so many people in a small and very dry area where, e.g. domestic energy is almost exclusively from firewood. But it can be managed.

The arguments against closure focus on security, as well, on the obligations under international law and on the human/humanitarian aspects. The second argument should be very strong, but this is where the Kenyan Government says that those who want to tell Kenya to uphold human rights, conventions and laws are those who themselves aren’t willing to do so. The human face and humanitarian aspect is an argument that the Kenyan Government initially said, ‘we know it will mean human suffering, and it is the duty of the international community to manage that’.

The coming couple of weeks will be very important. There will be meetings at various levels, in which the LWF will engage. I visited Dadaab this week. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, is to visit Kenya in the near future. A Government task force has been formed to prepare a plan for repatriation and closure. The task force is to present this plan on 31 May.

The right to seek and enjoy asylum is at stake

Personally I feel that the importance of this goes far beyond Kenya. If Kenya does go ahead and manages to close five camps in Dadaab, initially, and more or less forcefully repatriate 350,000 refugees to Somalia, there is nothing stopping other countries here and elsewhere from doing the same. The ‘right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 14 states is at stake. The humanitarian system as we know may more or less collapse. To address this, Kenya needs to take its share of the responsibility and live up to her commitments and duties, but so do many other countries that are not willing to do so today, not least in Europe. In addition, much more is needed in terms of addressing the underlying causes of displacement, mainly conflict that is sometimes combined with drought. That’s not an easy task. South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and other conflicts are not easily solved. And in her call that ‘more must be done’ and ‘more countries must do their part’ Kenya is, in my view, absolutely right. It is not only about putting pressure on Kenya, we must also do more globally.

What we can hope for is that this will lead to a realistic plan with milestones that does include repatriation of Somali refugee and a closure of Dadaab camps respecting human rights and international law and within a realistic time frame (a few years probably), with emphasis on voluntary, dignified, safe and sustainable return. We need more resettlements in third countries from Horn of Africa, and significantly more countries, greater effort made inside Somalia for stability, peace and development, more resources directed towards addressing the refugee crisis globally, with clear commitments followed by action.



Lennart Hernander, Program Representative, LWF World Service Kenya - Djibouti Program


LWF News

9 July 2021
GENEVA, Switzerland
8 March 2021
17 December 2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.