Kenya’s Dangerous, Vague Alchemy—Refugees and Terror

On May 10–12, I visited Nairobi as the government of Kenya unexpectedly announced its intent to close the Dadaab Somali refugee camps in 2016. Below are personal reflections that emerged from conversations with a wide range of refugee experts and others.

Kenya, a reasonably functional, promising but highly porous nation, has lived in a violent, unstable neighborhood for decades. Over time, it has inexorably become host—on a massive scale, willingly and unwillingly—to its neighbors’ victims. That legacy of generously providing a home to refugees from the region has long distinguished Kenya and has continued apace in recent years as ever more asylum seekers cross into Kenya seeking personal security for themselves and their families.

Yet in recent years, Kenya has also been visited repeatedly by Somalia’s Al Shabaab terrorists, at increasingly high costs in terms of innocent Kenyan lives lost. In that same period Kenya has deployed troops inside Somalia to battle Al Shabaab.

Last week, a tense moment arrived when the Kenyan government announced that “hosting of refugees has to come to an end” to protect Kenya’s national security. The decision to close the Dadaab Somali camps was handed down in the absence of any proven link between Somali refugees and Shabaab attacks.

This precipitous step poses several questions: Why now? Just how serious is the Kenyan government? What next?

Refugees are a familiar, complicated, and deeply embedded feature of life in Kenya. Kenya hosts 600,000 known refugees, the majority Somalis and a growing share South Sudanese. More than 350,000—mostly Somali refugees—reside in the five desolate Dadaab camps along the northeast border with Somali. Were its residents Kenyans, Dadaab (the earliest camps date back 25 years) would be Kenya’s fourth-largest city.

Some 190,000 refugees, over half South Sudanese, reside in the remote Kakuma camp in the northern Turkana area. That camp’s numbers climbed significantly when over 50,000 suddenly arrived as South Sudan returned to internal war in 2013.

At least 60,000 refugees live in urban settings, most in and around Nairobi. No one really knows for sure how many undeclared, illegal migrants are also in Kenya, but it is fair to assume the number is high. Half a million is a common guess. In the meantime, new asylum seekers, up to 100 per day, continue to cross into Kenya.

Enough Is Enough, Security Gains Primacy

On May 6, in a surprise move, Dr. Karanja Kibicho, the second-ranking official of the Kenyan Ministry of the Interior, delivered the starkly blunt “ Government Statement on Refugees and Closure of Refugee Camps .” In it, the government declared that patience has run out. The security, economic, and environmental costs associated with refugees has become untenable, and the status quo is simply no longer acceptable. Progress in repatriating Somali refuges under the November 2013 Tripartite Agreement (signed by Kenya, Somalia, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has been woefully slow and insufficient (fewer than 15,000 have resettled to Somalia.) The conclusion: “…the Government of Kenya has disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs as a first step. Further, the Government is working on a mechanism for closure of the two refugee camps within the shortest time possible.”

In a subsequent press statement on May 11, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaisserry clarified: “…the camps have become hosting grounds for Al Shabaab as well as centers of smuggling and contraband trade besides being enablers of illicit weapons proliferation. Considering the changing landscape of global terrorism, with new terrorist entities seeking to root themselves in our region, it would be inexcusable for the government to overlook its primary constitutional responsibilities to protect her citizens and their property.” In his remarks, he made clear he plans to close Dadaab by the end of the year, shortly after expiration of the three-year Tripartite Agreement.

Specifically, the government alleges Dadaab, its principal concern, is an active haven from which the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab organized and mounted attacks on Garissa University in October 2015 (killing 147), the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 (killing 67), and other incidents. (Kakuma appears to have fallen off the target list.)

That same day, the government launched the National Taskforce on Repatriation of Refugees, made public its membership and outlined its terms of reference. Its initial charge is to deliver a report to the minister by May 31 detailing the plan and timeline for implementation of the closure of Dadaab. (See “National Taskforce on Repatriation of Refugees,” Notice No. 3334, Kenya Gazette, May 11, 2016 .)

These steps, in rapid succession, caught virtually everyone off guard. Domestic political considerations predominated.

By all accounts, Kenyans were overwhelmingly favorable in their reactions. That presumably was the government’s hope. Heading into the 2017 national election cycle, citizens remain anxious about internal security, and Somali refugees (who of course do not vote) are an easy scapegoat.

And, as it faces an electoral test, the Kenyatta government itself remains vulnerable to opposition charges that it has been repeatedly inept: in detecting and preempting terror attacks, in responding competently as attacks unfold, and in arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators thereafter. Getting tough with Somali refugees permits the government to change the narrative over terrorism, just as it launches its reelection campaign announced the week prior. (Populist xenophobia is of course quite familiar to Americans who have witnessed Donald Trump win over 10 million Republican primary votes, in part by threatening to expel millions of Mexican immigrants and bar Muslims from entering the United States.)

While there is no evidence that Shabaab attacks have emanated from Dadaab (a point many critics quickly made), that reality appears now to take a back seat to the onset of the electoral season, awareness of expansive ISIS and al Qaeda operations in nearby Yemen, and the lasting impact on popular opinion of the Shabaab massacres at Garissa University and Westgate.

For all practical purposes, Dadaab is already treated overtly as an unsafe metropolis inside Kenya. While UN agencies and implementing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are permitted to operate inside the camps, they minimize their use of international staff and require police escorts. To a nervous public, it is not a long leap for the government to argue that Dadaab poses an unacceptable threat and must now be scaled down and its population relocated elsewhere.

The government’s announcement sparked a predictable outcry from an array of interests—the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others—that closure of camps would be in flagrant breach of humanitarian law and international obligations and that, if Somali and other refugees were forcibly repatriated, they would be cruelly subjected to unacceptable dangers and harm. Scattering populations with inadequate preparations can easily worsen, not lessen, the security threats Kenyans face.

There was also a lot of eye rolling among seasoned observers, who were quick to remind visitors like myself that similar threats had been made following earlier Shabaab attacks and that the government’s intentions were most likely merely intended to score a few points with the Kenyan electorate in the run-up to the 2017 elections, while shaking loose additional donor finances for refugee operations that had flagged in 2015 (causing heavy cuts in daily food rations) as donor resources were diverted to meet burgeoning refugee requirements in the Middle East and Europe .

Moreover, skeptics were quick to point out that Kenya’s fundamental quandaries are unchanged. The sheer number of refugees in Kenya are of such a formidable scale that they defy any quick solutions. The security environment inside both Somalia and South Sudan remains deeply dangerous and forbidding. And Kenyan security forces do not really control the nation’s borders, and indeed those that have operated inside Somalia have themselves been corrupted in smuggling operations. In the meantime, refugees have a knack for taking matters into their own hands and flitting away unseen suddenly, when it is in their perceived best interests.

All of these considerations notwithstanding, the Kenyan government’s actions do not appear to be a simple replay of the past, a passing eruption, or merely raw ransom (though all of these elements are at play). Its actions ring differently. They signal the ascent of security over humanitarianism in the government’s thinking, a will to be confrontational with the external world and chart Kenya’s own course, and a heightened determination to reorder fundamentally its approach to refugees, despite obvious continued rigid barriers to accomplishing what the government seeks.

To me, it was striking how strategically the government prepared, how carefully it timed its actions, and with what stealth and calculation it moved its plans forward.

An Africa Union Peace and Security Council delegation, invited to visit Kenya in March, issued its conclusions in April: that Dadaab posed a security threat and that Kenya was on solid grounds in treating it as such. That provided Kenya with solid political cover and bolstered the argument that African sovereign states hold the ultimate right to judge whether refugee populations pose a serious security threat and to decide on an appropriate course of action, quite apart from what other external interests think.

Several observers with whom I spoke remarked at how consistent, concisely composed, and well coordinated the government’s announcements were, delivered under the tight direction of State House and the Ministry of Interior. Other ministries were only brought in after the initial announcements. There was deliberately no prior consultation with the Somali government, those Kenyan country officials who host the refugee camps, or major donors and UN agencies. State House and Kenya’s securocrats went out of their way, it seems, to make clear that this was to be their show and that Kenya’s sovereign security—in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood—lies at the center of their thinking.

Timing was astute. The government laid down its challenges with the deliberate aim of putting its concerns on the global refugee agenda. It acted just prior to a UN Security Council visit and just a few days before the World Humanitarian Summit and the planned visit by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees immediately afterward. Whatever Kenyan action plan emerges from the taskforce will likely feature in deliberations at the refugee summit in September sponsored by the UN General Assembly and President Barack Obama.

And the Kenyan government correctly calculated that the time was ripe to put the major donors back on their heels, with intimations that they have been negligent, hypocritical, and self-absorbed.

Donor contributions to refugees in East and Central Africa have fallen significantly, even as the population in need across the region’s 14 countries has doubled in the past three years to 3.4 million. The October 2015 pledging conference for the Tripartite Agreement, held in Brussels, yielded only $106 million in soft, uncertain commitments, against an estimated need of $500 million. In the meantime, the European Union committed in March $7 billion to support Syrian and other refugees in Turkey over the next three years, in arrangements (e.g., the forced transfer of refugees from Greece to Turkey) that are in open breach of the Geneva Conventions. Across Europe and in the United States, in the wake of attacks in Istanbul, Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, political hostility against refugees has hardened.

What Next?

Kenya has launched on a hazardous path. Its margins for success are narrow, and the risk that its evolving strategy may backfire are high. It is seeking to navigate a fluid and dangerous security environment in the Horn of Africa, while competing for scarce donor dollars in a world marketplace of 60 million plus refugees and internally displaced persons, in which the deck is decidedly stacked against East Africa.

It will be important to remain realistic. Kenya’s internal political considerations and sovereign security calculations will likely continue to predominate. The government in 2016 and into 2017 will be determined to demonstrate concrete results in drawing down the population of Dadaab: whether through a formal repatriation to Somalia, late night flight of refugees, or resettlement to the United States and Europe. It will press the international community hard for higher levels of resources.

External opinion will likely matter less than in the past. Western credibility is down, and though the government of Kenya will likely not utterly disregard external opinion and its obligations under international law, the government will nonetheless be eager to assert the primacy of security concerns and to show its citizenry and the world that it can get its way, politically, financially and strategically.

Finally, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other donors, as well as international organizations and NGOs, will need to be vigilant, adaptive, and proactive. Major powers will be called on to strengthen counterterror cooperation. Donors will be called on to revisit the Tripartite Agreement: to provide more ample financing, to join in testing whether repatriation is possible in pockets inside Somalia (e.g., Mogadishu, Kismayo), and to test what forms of forward assistance might make that possible, with a focus (similar in some respects to unfolding donor action in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey) on providing security, education, health care, and housing (all minimal or nonexistent in many areas of Somalia). There will be major diplomatic moments at the World Humanitarian Summit, the UN Summit on Refugees in September in New York, and elsewhere where the discussion will center on how countries like Kenya are successfully to navigate continued long-term humanitarian demands with shifting, dangerous security threats.

We should not be surprised that security has come to dominate Kenya’s calculations. Insecurity and terror threats have proliferated across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn as instability and refugee demands regionally have abounded. In combination, these require new thinking across the board, as we ponder the future.

J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.