Fear forces refugees in world’s largest camp to return to conflict zones

Residents of the world’s largest refugee camp are technically being returned by force to conflict zones in a major contravention of international law, a rights group has argued.

Since the Kenyan government announced in May that it will close the Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya in November, many of the camp’s roughly 300,000 residents have begun to leave for their original homes in war-torn Somalia.

The Kenyan government and the management of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, claim these returns are voluntary. But in a report released on Thursday, the US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said people are returning to Somalia because they feel intimidated, and because they fear being expelled if they remain in the camp past November.

Fear forces refugees in world’s largest camp to return to conflict zones
Fear forces refugees in world’s largest camp to return to conflict zones

Based on interviews with 100 Dadaab residents, the report adds that returnees are also not being given proper information about the situation in Somalia, and risk losing $400 (£300) in cash handouts if they stay in Kenya.

A 42-year-old Somalian woman, who has signed up to return home, told HRW: “We fled Somalia because of specific problems, and those problems are still there. It’s not the right time for us to go back. But every day the Kenyan government is telling us that we have to go, and UNHCR is not giving us any different information … I said I will go back as we have no other option.”

HRW argues that this dynamic is technically a breach of international law, since the 1951 refugee convention forbids the return or “refoulement” of refugees to countries where they may be at risk.

HRW states: “Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also where indirect pressure on individuals is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.”

Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee rights director, said: “The Kenyan authorities are not giving Somali refugees a real choice between staying and leaving, and the UN refugee agency isn’t giving people accurate information about security conditions in Somalia. There is no way these returns can be considered voluntary.”

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Kenya’s vice-president, William Ruto, denied that refugees were being coerced into leaving. “We believe very strongly that there is a lot of willingness by the refugees to go back home,” Ruto said. “We do not expect that it will get to a situation where anybody is forced to go back home, because that is not within our international obligations.”

The management of the UN refugee agency, which is meant to ensure the implementation of the 1951 refugee convention, says the returns are legal. “We have not seen [forced returns],” a UNHCR spokesman said last month.

But in the field, UNHCR officials told a different story. “Families we have interviewed and many of those who filled the repatriation forms have shown that they are returning because of threatening rhetoric by Kenyan regional security officials who recently visited the camp,” a Dadaab-based UNHCR official, Mohamed Mahad Gurhan, told Voice of America.

Kenyan officials say their actions are inspired by Europe’s attempts to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe by force. The initial decision to close Dadaab came just weeks after the announcement of the EU-Turkey deal, which is meant to ensure the deportation of most asylum seekers arriving by boat to Greece.

At the time, Kenya’s cabinet secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, said of the Dadaab closure: “This is the standard practice worldwide. For example in Europe, rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since world war two.”

The pattern is also being repeated in Pakistan, where HRW says the government is intimidating tens of thousands of Afghan refugees into returning home.

Around 3 million Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan, and roughly 90,000 have returned home this year after what HRW calls coercion on the part of the government.

“Pakistani authorities are increasingly committing abuses against Afghan refugees that are triggering a mass refugee return,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should rein in its abusive security forces and ensure the refugees’ secure status and protection.”

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