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Whither Refugee Protection?

By Kerstin Fisk

In May, the government of Kenya announced the impending closure of refugee camps home to more than 250,000 displaced Somalis. Government officials charged that the camps in Dadaab, a sprawling refugee complex near the border with Somalia, are an economic and environmental burden, as well as an “existential security threat.” This wasn’t the first time the government pledged to close the camps, however. It did so in the aftermath of the 2013 attack at Westgate Mall and after the 2015 attack on Garissa University, which the government alleged the Somali militant group al-Shabab planned and coordinated in Dadaab.

Following each announcement, international aid and human rights agencies wasted no time condemning the Kenyan government for compromising refugees’ dignity and safety, for risking humanitarian disaster, and for scapegoating the refugees when no residents of the camps had been charged of any crime. Representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pleaded that the security situation in Somalia remains dire and that to send the refugees back involuntarily would constitute “a breach of Kenya’s international obligations.” Indeed, the core tenet of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees is the principle of non-refoulement—the right of refugees to be protected from forced return to a country where their lives or freedom would be under threat.

Last month, the Kenyan government announced it would extend Dadaab’s closure date by six months, from Nov. 30, 2016 to May 31, 2017. International pressure to back down, combined with the infeasibility of the initial deadline, played a role in this decision. Some conclude that the government’s recurrent threats and delays are likely to continue past this date, however, as part of a broader strategy that relies on the closure threat as a bargaining mechanism for securing more international funding as Western countries prioritize support for other countries (including billions of dollars to Turkey, which hosts over 2.5 million Syrian refugees) over Kenya. An article in The Economist speculated, “Moving half a million people out of Kenya is impossible, at least without immense cruelty. So the chances are that the threat of closure is a desperate appeal for more funds.”

Kenyan officials, for their part, maintain that negotiating greater aid provision is only fair given the share of the responsibility on Kenyan shoulders. The country has hosted Somali refugees in what has become the world’s largest refugee camp since 1991, and its population of South Sudanese refugees continues to grow. Kirando Kibicho, Kenya’s interior principal secretary, has been vocal about what he considers Western double standards, as many Western governments turn away refugees on national security grounds while calling on other, less developed countries to care for them—even countries whose commitment to refugees’ and asylum seekers’ basic rights is dubious, such as Turkey.

Indeed, the Kenya case is a glaring example of a much broader problem: a persistent and growing inequality in refugee “burden sharing” among developed and developing countries. While outside analysts (rightfully) admonish Kenyan politicians when they opportunistically use the refugees as pawns in international and domestic politics, top officials in Kenya call out hypocrisy and dig in their heels on the grounds that they “can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the International Community’s weakening obligations to refugees.” In the wake of the EU-Turkey refugee deal, Joseph Nkaisserry, the Kenyan government’s cabinet secretary, was careful to point to the example of Europe, where, “rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two.” 

Hosting imbalances are stark. According to UNHCR estimates, relatively poor, developing countries host 13.9 million of the world’s 16.1 million refugees, or approximately 86 percent—with countries designated “least developed” taking in 4 million. Several of these nations already grapple with extreme poverty and instability, including Kenya, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad.

Given this distribution, it is not surprising that leaders in Kenya, as well as in other host countries in the developing world, perceive recent admonitions from Western leaders as duplicitous. This problem did not begin in Kenya. Those who argue that Kenya’s actions would risk setting a dangerous precedent for other host states should trace the fallen dominos at least as far back as the EU’s deal with Turkey, which is designed to keep refugees out of Europe.

Going forward, the international community must do more to provide the UNHCR and host governments with the resources they require to adequately accommodate and protect refugees. This need is immediate—the UNHCR is now dealing with a half-billion-dollar funding shortfall for sheltering refugees. In order to constitute real burden sharing, however, developed country assistance will have to go beyond mere economic aid. As Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, maintains, “If there is real shared responsibility, we should see some countries step forward and say: we’ll take 5,000, we’ll take 10,000.”

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Kerstin Fisk is an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of EC/ECHO/Daniel Dickinson]

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