Double standards shape refugee policy

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya Photo: Tom Maruko/

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya
Photo: Tom Maruko/

The Kenyan government threatens to close the largest refugee camp in the world. Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) researcher Sirkku Hellsten hopes this will trigger a serious discussion among EU and UN policy makers about general responsibilities on refugee issues. So far this has not been the case. if almost half a million people are forced to leace Dadaab, that discussion is vital.

Harbouring 350 000 people, Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world. The majority of the people there have fled from the conflict in Somalia, while others have sought refuge from drought and famine. Established in 1991, the camp was originally intended to accommodate 90,000 people. Twenty-five years later, it is four times bigger and several reports describe living conditions there as extremely poor. A few months ago, the Kenyan government announced again its intention to close the camp, which is located on the Somali border. One reason for this announcement is the fear of ongoing terrorist recruitment in the camp. An official statement claims that all recent terror attacks in Kenya been mounted by individuals with links to it.

“Sure, it is likely terrorist recruiters and criminal gangs operate in the camp. However, that is not the only place in Kenya where recruitment takes place. It happens as much in the poor neighbourhoods of Nairobi and elsewhere. Closing the camp would not make Kenya a safer place,” NAI researcher Sirkku Hellsten remarks.

Camps are not permanent
Another reason could be financial. Turkey now receives more than three billion dollars a year from the European Union to prevent the large number of migrants in the country, mainly refugees from Syria, from entering Europe. Observers suggest 
that the hope of negotiating better terms with the international community triggered Kenya’s threat to close Dadaab.

“Some call it blackmail, but it is a fact that the EU pays huge sums to Turkey. Why not to Kenya as well? Or other places in Africa hosting refugees? In any event, closing a refugee camp must always be the long-term objective ‒ they are not supposed to be permanent solutions. The most important question at the moment is what to do with all the people living in Dadaab,” Hellsten adds.She is critical of the double standards that European leaders apply to migration and refugee matters. On one hand, they protest about the inhumane conditions in camps, but on the other they want no responsibility for maintaining the camps – or to accept more refugees from there if camps are shut down.

NAI researcher Sirkku Hellsten says 'Dadaab is a further proof of the failure of international refugee policies.'

NAI researcher Sirkku Hellsten says ‘Dadaab is a further proof of the failure of international refugee policies.’

“Of course, the migration crisis in Europe is a recent development and was not predicted. Consequently, EU countries are less keen to provide money for refugees far away when they have troubles of their own on their doorsteps. Yet there needs to be a serious discussion of shared responsibilities. After all, previously the argument was that it is better to keep refugees close to their homes to make repatriation easier. What about United Nations principles of human rights – they apply to everyone everywhere,” Hellsten observes.

Cheaper solution
Supporting refugees is more costly in Europe. For instance, refugees coming to Sweden are entitled to the same living conditions as Swedes, which are quite high and expensive. In Kenya, the costs are less, and therefore European countries prefer to provide money to the UN to care for the refugees in Kenya.

“European countries then feel they have given money and now it’s up to UN and Kenya to deal with the situation. In addition, people living in the camps are probably not able to reach Europe. If the camps close some might try instead of going back to Somalia,” Hellsten points out.

Many of the refugees in Dadaab haven’t been in Somalia for years, and some were even born in the camp. It is not clear that all of them want to move back to Somalia. And what future would they have in Somalia? There is hardly a functioning state there and Somali leaders have asked for more money and time to be able to deal with the eventual repatriation of people from Dadaab. Indeed, one Somali minister visiting the camp has said that despite all the hardships there, at least the children go to school. That would not be the case in Somalia.

“No one would be happier than al-Shabaab were thousands and thousands of young people to be forced to return to Somalia with little expectation of employment or livelihood. They would represent a huge pool of new recruits. And if Somalia is now a safe place for refugees to return to, as the Kenyan government claims, how come Kenya and the African Union still have a heavily military presence there?” Hellsten asks.

A wake-up call
Everybody complains about the living conditions in refugee camps, but no one wants to take responsibility for the refugees when camps close. Neither Kenya, nor Somalia or the UN, Hellsten argues, cannot vouch for a decent living for those refugees after repatriation. Kenya’s cry is a wake-up call for policymakers to start a serious discussion about these issues.

“We need to see the big picture. I am not defending the Kenyan stand on closing the camp, after all, the human rights situation is rather serious there now. However, the country does bring issues of double standards and inconsistencies in the open. Dadaab is a further proof of the failure of international refugee policies. If Kenya gets AU and UN political support to close Dadaab, what happens next? Remember, there are many refugee camps on the continent. Will, for instance, Tanzania also ask for more money to keep its camps going? Kenya has raised an important question that must be dealt with urgently,” Hellsten concludes.


Nordic Africa Institute