UN asks Kenya to reconsider closing refugee camps

Human rights groups slam Kenya's decision which would displace 600,000 people.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has urged Kenya to abandon plans to close its refugee camps, including the world's largest refugee compound Dadaab, in a move that would displace more than 600,000 people.

In a statement on 9 May the UNHCR said it viewed Kenya's plans with "profound concern" and called on the government to reconsider “taking any action that might be at odds with its international obligations."

Kenya says that hosting the refugees, the majority of whom have fled famine and violence in neighbouring Somalia, poses “immense security challenges”, alluding to the government's long-held belief that Dadaab is a recruitment ground for Islamist militants Al-Shabaab.

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Kenya has threatened to close its refugee camps in the past, particularly in the wake of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, claimed by Al-Shabaab, but relented following international pressure. This time, however, the government has disbanded its department of refugee affairs and says it plans to close the camps “within the shortest time possible.”

Kenya has acknowledged that shutting down the camps would adversely affect the displaced inhabitants but said it was up to the international community to step in to minimise the suffering of the refugees. Its decision has been described as “reckless” by human rights organisation Amnesty International.

The camps set for closure include the Kenya's two largest refugee facilities: Dadaab, in the northeast Garissa region, with 300,000 inhabitants, and Kakuma, in the north-west of the country, with 55,000 people. Dadaab is situated about 100 km from the border between Kenya and Somalia, and was established by the UNHCR when Somalia's civil war broke out in 1991. Kenya hosts up to 650,000 refugees in total, with about three-quarters from Somalia, with most of the others from South Sudan.

Kenya faces an ongoing threat from al-Shabab which says its attacks on Kenyan soil are in retribution for the country's ongoing military intervention in Somalia. Kenyan troops have been deployed in Somalia since 2011 as part of efforts by the UN-backed government to oust the insurgents.