DADAAB, Kenya — The world’s largest refugee camp is becoming a scene of not only chronic misery but a new and growing confrontation between a Kenyan government threatening to shut it down and occupants vowing to stay.
But the 350,000 refugees — mostly Somalis who have fled civil war, terrorism and famine — say they won’t willingly leave the peace and security of Dadaab. On their side: the United Nations, which has spoken out against the move.The government announced April 11 that it wanted the camp closed within three months because it was used as a staging ground by al-Shabab terrorists for the deadly university attack in Garissa earlier this month that killed more than 140 students and staff.
“I will either live or die at this camp,” said Abdi Mohammed Adan, 37, who came to Dadaab recently with his wife and four children. “I can’t go back to Somalia. It’s not safe. And there is hunger (there).”
Mohamed Kuno, believed to be the mastermind behind the university attack, was a headmaster at a madrassa, or Islamic school, in the Dadaab camp. The Kenyan government currently has a $215,000 bounty on his head.
Other terrorists involved in the attacks were either refugees or Kuno’s colleagues at the madrassa, said Adan Duale, the majority leader of Kenya’s National Assembly who represents Garissa Township.
At least four of the terrorists were killed in a military operation to end a more than 15-hour long siege April 2 that also left 79 people injured. Since then, seven suspects in the attack have been arrested.
Founded 25 years ago as Somalia’s government imploded and the East African country descended into civil war, the Dadaab camp has become a city where generations have lived and died.
“Living in Somalia is like being in hell. My neighbors in Somalia were all killed by militants before I moved with my family,” said Adan’s wife, Aisha, 27.
Duale said he believes al-Shabab — a terror group linked with al-Qaeda — has used the camp for other attacks that were in retaliation against Kenya for sending soldiers into Somalia in 2011 to root out Muslim extremism. He includes the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi two years ago that left 67 dead and injured about 175 people among those assaults.
“Those involved in terror activities have been trained at these camps,” Duale said, referring to three facilities that make up the larger Dadaab refugee zone. “They come from Somalia and the people of Kenya need to be protected. The time has come when the national security of our people becomes paramount.”
Despite reports its stance has softened, the Kenya government insists the camp should be shuttered. However, donors will be needed to help repatriate all the refugees back to Somalia — a process that requires additional funds and could take some time, said Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed.
“We can’t tell when the refugees will be repatriated,” she said. “This can be either within the three months or a little bit over that period. But the bottom line would be to repatriate the refugees.”
The legislature has called on the United Nations to help Kenya close down the camp and arrange for safe return of all Somali refugees to their country.
“The Somalis have been with us for the last 20 years,” Duale said. “They’ve radicalized our youths in these camps and it’s time they should leave. We want the refugees to be relocated across the border.”
The United Nations has called on Duale and other Kenyan leaders to reconsider. Moving hundreds of thousands of unwilling people would be a logistical nightmare. It’s also not clear whether the refugees would be safe in Somalia, and Kenya is a signatory to U.N. refugee conventions obligating the country to protect the refugees.
“Abruptly closing the Dadaab camps and forcing refugees back to Somalia would have extreme humanitarian and practical consequences, and would be a breach of Kenya’s international obligations,” said Karin de Gruijl, a spokesperson for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, in a statement.
Under international law, Kenya can’t simply close the camp, said Nazlin Umar Fazaldin Rajput, chairperson of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. But even if officials were able to shutter it, the refugees and terrorists would simply return.
“It’s not going to be an easy task,” she said. “That action will be futile taking into account our long and porous border, which our security apparatus has failed to control.”
Rajput urged the government to instead withdraw Kenya troops from Somalia.
“That strategy has failed,” she said “These are retaliatory attacks that innocent civilians in Kenya are bearing the brunt of. These attacks will not end until Kenya minds its own business and moves out of Somalia.