KEN160522TO008DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – Abdalla Osman sits on the ground next to his wife and three children in this sprawling, dusty refugee camp and explains why he wants to stay here even though Kenya desperately wants him to go.

He's built a good life in this camp since he escaped Somalia 30 years ago, he says, starting a butcher shop, getting married, having children, creating a home. But last month, the Kenyan government said it wants to shut down this camp complex and another to the northwest that together host more than 400,000 people, a majority of them Somali.

Osman says Dadaab is the only home he has ever known.

"I had nothing when I arrived at the camp," said Osman. "But I have built my life from scratch. I have been able to enroll my children in school using the profits from my business. There's no way I can accept my children dropping out of school and going back to Somalia."

A month ago, Kenyan officials said they want to shutter the Dadaab and Kakuma camps because of security concerns. The decision was the result of intelligence reports the government said showed that the two camps have become a haven for terrorism and illegal activities such as smuggling whose proceeds fund terrorists.

The decision is leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of whom were born and raised in the camp or like Osman arrived as a child, caught in the middle.

Osman came to Dadaab at the age of 13 as Somalia descended into civil war after the ouster of Mohammed Said Barre in 1991. Power struggles between clan warlords led to the rise of fundamentalist Islam and the birth of the Al Shabab movement, a violent terrorist group that controls significant territory and continues to terrorize civilians in the country. The insecurity and political instability have forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis to flee.

Now the government wants to send them back into a deteriorating situation.

"Where do they want us to go?" asked Osman, 43, who came to this camp close to the Somali border in 1991. "There's no safe place in Somalia. People are being killed daily by terrorists. We can't go there to die."

But the government is insistent, saying it must protect Kenyans.

"...We must bring this to an end. Refugee camps are not permanent features. How can we continue shouldering the burden for three decades?" said Interior Minister Fred Matiang'i, who has given the United Nations, which runs the camps, a deadline to create a plan to dismantle them.

Another official told the Nation, a Kenyan daily, that, "We can't continue spending too much money thwarting terror attacks when we can resolve the problem by closing the camps."

This is not the first time officials have threatened to close the camps. The government tried in 2016, citing economic and security reasons. The plan was blocked by the high court, which called the move illegal and unconstitutional.

On April 6, Kenya's high court issued a 30-day stay suspending the closure.

Meanwhile, it's no easy feat to close Dadaab which is essentially Kenya's third-largest city after Nairobi and Mombasa.

The camp that began as a temporary shelter for 90,000 refugees fleeing the Somalian civil war has grown into a complex of three distinct camps – two more were closed in 2017 and 2018 after hundreds of thousands entered a voluntary repatriation program and returned to Somalia.

The camps have several primary and secondary schools, hospitals, sprawling markets and soccer leagues. On the streets of the camps, young and elderly women line up to sell plantains, fish, eggs, vegetables, tomatoes and onions. Others sell clothes, shoes and other merchandise products at stalls. Butchers hang meat from goats and chickens under metal awnings.

Fawzia Mohamed, a teacher in the camp, said it was impossible to close down one of the largest camps in the world.

"They will fail again," she said. "No one is going to Somalia. People have businesses here, children are going to school and families continue to give birth daily. You can't kill all those dreams in a single day."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said Kenya will come up with a solution. "They want to see (a way) forward," said Grandi.

Officials in Kenya have long had concerns about residents' relationship to al Shabaab, which has close ties to al Qaeda and has struck Kenya several times in the past decade: In 2013, militants attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi and killed 68 people; the next year, they attacked Mpeketoni and surrounding villages in the northern coastal region and killed more than 60; and in 2015 they staged an attack on Garissa University that left 148 students, mainly non-Muslims, dead. The militants want to force Kenya to withdraw its soldiers from Somalia where they are part of an African Union mission.

Still, analysts said the government is exaggerating the security concerns to have a reason to shut down the camps. For example, the local economies benefit from having the refugees there.

Some say it is politics.

"It is no longer Muslim extremists rather radicals and (criminals) who are out for hire," said security analyst Gerald Majany, a professor of international relations and diplomacy at Presbyterian University of East Africa. "They change their outfits when the need arises. Otherwise, they are the shopkeeper, the lawyer, the doctor, etc. The closure of the camps is a knee-jerk (reaction) but not a way to deal with terrorism."

Meanwhile, he says the government closure order is likely in retaliation against Somalia for insisting on pursuing a case at the International Court of Justice over a disputed maritime border between the two countries. The two countries' relationship has deteriorated since Somalia cut off diplomatic relations last year with Kenya citing internal interference. Now, this move is because of politics not "not necessarily a security, peace and safety agenda," he added.

But for refugees, geopolitics don't matter. Losing everything they built over decades does.

"I would rather die here than be taken back to Somalia," said Osman. "I promised myself never to set my foot in Somalia again."

Photo: May 22, 2016 - Refugees queue in the Daadab refugee complex to receive food donations from UNHCR. Recently, Kenyan officials said they want to shutter the Dadaab and Kakuma camps because of security concerns. The decision was the result of intelligence reports the government said showed that the two camps have become a haven for terrorism and illegal activities such as smuggling whose proceeds fund terrorists.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (05/22/16)

Story/photo published date: 05/02/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.