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Kenyan Refugee Camp Closure Shakes San Diego’s Somali Population

Dadaab camp is called the world’s largest refugee camp

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A woman participates at a meeting at the Somali Bantu Association of America offices in City Heights, Aug. 16, 2016.

The news that the complex will close in November has left San Diego's Somali population on edge as the fate of loved ones still living in the complex is unknown.

An East African group leader in City Heights said the upcoming closure of a refugee camp in Kenya has devastated the community. A local expert claimed the shut down could exacerbate America's fight against terrorism.

Kenyan officials announced in May the shut down of its Dadaab camp, home to nearly 350,000 residents and considered the world's largest refugee sanctuary.

The news that the complex will close in November has left San Diego's Somali population on edge as the fate of loved ones still living in the complex is unknown, and experts worry it could worsen the region's instability considering Kenya's vague plans to return many of the camp's inhabitants back to war-torn Somalia.

As of July, the United Nations reported 95 percent of the camp's refugees were from Somalia.

Said Abiyow, president of the Somali Bantu Association Of America in San Diego, said he has sent emails to the U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya and the United Nations expressing concerns about returning refugees to what he considers still a violent place.

U.S. Secertary of State John Kerry On Kenya's Announcement To Stop Hosting Refugees

I am deeply concerned by the Government of Kenya’s decision to close refugee camps in Kenya, dismantle the Department of Refugee Affairs, and expedite the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have sought protection in Kenya.

We strongly urge the Government of Kenya to maintain its longstanding leadership role in protecting and sheltering victims of violence and trauma, consistent with its international obligations. We call on Kenya to uphold these international obligations and not forcibly repatriate refugees.

We deeply appreciate the hospitality and commitment that Kenya has shown over decades of hosting refugees. We have long supported Kenya in shouldering this significant responsibility, including through significant contributions in humanitarian assistance and by resettling many refugees to the United States.

We call on Kenya to continue its support for refugees and voluntary return efforts, and to continue to work with UNHCR and partner nations to find durable solutions that respect humanitarian standards and uphold international law. We also urge the Government of Kenya to honor its responsibilities, including the 2013 Tripartite Agreement on the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees living in Kenya.

We remain committed to working with Kenya to support voluntary returns that are safe, dignified and consistent with international law, as well as helping Kenya to address security concerns presented by al-Shabaab and other extremist groups.

May, 11, 2016

"Where there will be starting raping, killing of them," said Abiyow, who lost 10 siblings to the country's violence before fleeing in 1992. "And that's why it's very, very disappointing to all of us. And since this story has been heard, we're so worried about it. A lot of people have been crying."

His sister is currently in the Dadaab camp. He said she was kidnapped in Somalia, but eventually escaped to the facility located 300 miles away from the capital of Nairobi. Abiyow said she has begun the process to join him in City Heights, which is home to 10,000 Somali refugees and includes a district known as "Little Mogadishu."

The camp was also a temporary home for East African refugee Charles Jock, who resettled in City Heights and went on to run for Team USA in this year's Olympics.

The Kenyan government said its decision to close the five-camp complex comes amid concerns it's a brewing ground for the al-Shabaab terrorist group, but Andrew Blum, the executive director of University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, said the move could actually worsen the situation.

"What's a bit ironic is that Kenya is talking about closing the camp because of security concerns, because of terrorism concerns. I think the consensus is this would actually exacerbate terrorism concerns," Blum said in a recent phone interview. "I mean, if you displace hundreds of thousands people that is a way to radicalize people. U.S. government is concerned about al-Shabaab. The U.S. government is concerned about other terrorist groups in Africa, so it is likely that this would increase the problem of terrorism that the U.S. is confronting in East Africa."

Additionally, the closure would be a "humanitarian catastrophe," he said.

"The Kenyan government is working with the U.N. and it said it would relocate or repatriate the residents of the area, but I think most experts look at the scale of the refugee camp and don't believe that there could be a sort of effective, humane way of relocating 350,000 or so residents," Blum said.

The United Nations sought funding in late June for a $115 million plan to relocate 150,000 inhabitants by the end of the year, including 50,000 refugees to Somalia. Emails to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees seeking an update on the plans were not returned.

UC San Diego graduate student John Porten, who's conducting a study in the camp, said the situation is worrisome for its residents, but also on a larger scale.

Photo by Ben Curtis AP

Parts of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, are seen from a helicopter in northern Kenya in 2012.

The Ph.D. student said it will be "sort of a slow-motion humanitarian disaster if Kenya doesn't back down."

"So yeah, there's a lot of concern among camp residents about what is going to happen," Porten said.

During a trip to the camp last summer with colleague Mike Seese, Porten said many Dadaab residents told him they had family or friends in San Diego and often recited local street names and businesses when they learned the researchers lived in Southern California.

But the United States only takes in a slim percentage of the world's refugees, leaving the Dadaab residents with few options. Porten said the opportunities to legally emigrate to Kenya are limited because of the sheer volume of displaced persons in the camp, and the length of time that many have stayed in the 25-year-old campus means few have social and economic ties to Somalia that would make for an easy transition.

"So it would be a disaster in terms of direct humanitarian issues," Porten said. "It would also be a disaster in terms of security and political development. This sort of repatriation of all of these people into a fragile political system is likely to result in more violence. These people are vulnerable."

The Kenya government currently facilitates voluntary repatriation to Somalia, but its plans to wind down the camp before the end of the year could mean returning to the unstable country is no longer just an option.

Photo credit: U.S. State Department

A U.S. Department of State map of Somalia.

In a June article by Al Jazeera, Somalia's ambassador to the United States said the closure would "force" the camp's population out. In response, a Kenyan government spokesperson denied this and said the country worked out an agreement with the neighboring Somali state of Jubaland to resettle the refugees near the city of Kismaayo, Al Jazeera reported.

The city of Kismaayo is also the future home of a rehab center for former al-Shabaab militants.

President Barack Obama spoke with his Kenyan counterpart President Uhuru Kenyatta about the impact of the Dadaab camp closure during a phone call in June.

According to a White House statement, "The President and President Kenyatta agreed that the United States and Kenya would work closely together on this issue, to better ensure that the needs of refugees and host communities are met."

Obama is hosting a summit to address the global refugee crisis in September.

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