Feeling the pinch: Kenya, Al-Shabaab, and East Africa's refugee crisis.

Author:Burns, avery

With the situation in Somalia deteriorating by the minute, time is of the essence. No one is feeling the pinch as much as Kenya. No one is feeling the pinch as much as Kenya. An influx of refugees and insecurity, indeed, Kenya is bearing the burden of the failed state in its neighbourhood. But Kenya's inaction could be coming to an end. (1)

Kenya is dealing with several major concurrent crises: a humanitarian crisis, a political crisis, and a national security crisis. These crises reflect aspects of a national dilemma as Kenya struggles to deal with a continuous influx of refugees, major domestic political turmoil, and overt threats to its national security stemming from the Somali armed faction, Al-Shabaab. Prior to the refugee crisis beginning in the 1990s, Kenya had a laissezfaire attitude towards refugee hosting because the size of the influx was much more manageable and refugees were not deemed a major threat to national security. (2) However, in the early 1990s Kenya's neighbours, mainly Sudan and Somalia, dissolved into conflict, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek asylum in Kenya. The influx overwhelmed Kenya's capacity to manage the populations, and the government pushed for a policy of containing refugees in two camps, Dadaab and Kakuma. Dadaab is composed of three camps, Dagahale, Ifo and Hagadera. Dadaab is the name of the refugee site and collectively refers to all camps. At present, Dadaab is the world's largest refugee camp and is dangerously over capacity. (3) Kenya continues to host refugees, albeit reluctantly, as it wishes to remain in good standing with the international community. However, its commitment to East Africa's refugee crisis is being sidelined by its own domestic strife and threats to its national security stemming from Somalia. Kenya is still reeling from the aftermath of its election violence in 2008 and is on edge as the threat from Somalia was made all the more concrete when Al-Shabaab bombed Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010. (4) Consequently, Kenya's tolerance for the ongoing refugee problem which peaked in the 1990s due to major conflicts in the region is waning and concurrently issues of national security are growing.

Kenya holds a strategic geopolitical position and its humanitarian, political, and security issues are of great regional and international concern. Much of East Africa's stability depends on Kenya's stability as it is the economic epicentre for the region, and Nairobi is home to regional headquarters for embassies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the United Nations. Furthermore, Kenya is of major strategic interest in the global campaign against terrorism. In 1998 a truck loaded with explosives drove into the US embassy in downtown Nairobi, killing 214 people, most of them Kenyan nationals. This was followed by a bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002. These bombings were both attributed to Al-Qaeda and elevated Kenya into the international arena for the war on terror. (5) It is in this context of the threat of externally based terrorism that Kenya has grown wary of armed factions, like Al-Shabaab, infiltrating refugee populations residing in the country. Al-Shabaab is an organization that has been in operation since 2006 and although its primary efforts have been to overthrow the Somali government it has also threatened to attack Kenya in hopes of annexing Kenya's North Eastern Province (NEP) into Somalia. (6) Already having been a victim of terrorism, Kenya is taking the Al-Shabaab threat quite seriously.

Kenya has every right to take the Al-Shabaab threat seriously. Al-Shabaab has been infiltrating the Somali population in Kenya to recruit more fighters and gain additional support. Recently, it has been reported by Human Rights Watch and other news agencies that Kenya is retaliating by infiltrating the Somali community itself to recruit refugees to return to Somalia to fight alongside the opponents of Al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). These refugees are vulnerable and disaffected and therefore susceptible to both alleged recruitment processes. The alleged use of refugees by Kenya to counter the threat of Al-Shabaab may demonstrate a new perception of outside threats and suggests that Kenya is now willing to sacrifice ideals of humanitarianism to secure its border with Somalia. The border remains officially closed but thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Somalia continue to pour into Kenya. These refugees are desperate for security, but Kenya is quite aware that where refugees manage to cross the border, Al-Shabaab fighters may follow.

To fully understand why Kenya is willing to take drastic measures against Al-Shabaab and use refugees as pawns in the conflict, it is important to understand Kenya's past relationship with hosting refugees and the impact of its present policies on the ongoing crisis which began in the 1990s. Secondly, Kenya is of great strategic importance to the stability of the region. Thus, it is pertinent to comprehend the core issues and key players of Kenya's domestic, regional, and international influence, which cause friction in how it deals with refugee influxes. By using refugees as proxies in conflict both Kenya and Al-Shabaab are demonstrating the strategic convenience of such vulnerable populations. Finally, Kenya's present stance on refugees illustrates that Kenya is in a position where it would rather assert its national security than honour humanitarianism because it is convinced it can no longer do both. Kenya is important to the stability and prosperity of East Africa and hence is feeling immense pressure from the international community not only to challenge the threat posed by Al-Shabaab but also to confront its major internal issues. Kenya is facing a serious dilemma and perceives that it cannot address its humanitarian crisis and its national security crisis simultaneously. Hence, if the allegations are true that Kenya is recruiting refugees to return to Somalia and fight Al-Shabaab, then Kenya is clearly prioritizing national security over the human rights of refugees seeking asylum within its borders.

Kenya's Relations with Refugees and the Refugee Crisis of the 1990s

The government of Kenya held a mostly laissez-faire attitude towards the refugee population prior to the refugee crisis of the 1990s and the major domestic and external security threats that it faces today. A refugee is defined as someone who is forced to flee their home due to environmental concerns, persecution, and protracted conflict. (7) Generally, the term "refugee" is applied to a person who crosses international borders, while refugees who remain within the borders of their state are commonly referred to as "internally displaced persons" (IDPs.) The refugee problem was not as severe as it is today. In the 1970s and 1980s Kenya hosted a manageable number of 15,000 refugees, mostly from Uganda, who were allowed to self-settle and provided cheap labour. (8) Prior to the 1990s, the government of Kenya was in charge of refugee status determination (RSD). RSD consists of a series of interviews conducted to determine whether the person qualifies for refugee status and assistance. However, the government of Kenya ceded control to the UNHCR in the early 1990s with the onset of conflict in Somalia ,and Sudan. There were too many refugees entering at once, which overwhelmed the government of Kenya's capacity to register refugees and maintain control over the situation. In 1992 alone, Kenya's refugee population increased from 130,000 to 400,000 people. (9) Kenya's attitude towards refugees gradually shifted from indifference to great concern as it faced a major humanitarian crisis. The cross-border refugee crisis revealed to Kenya that it was incapable of assimilating and properly aiding the incoming populations. It also reminded Kenya that its borders were insecure, and that the conflict that the refugees were fleeing could potentially spill over the borders. (10) Kenya was desperate for resources to deal with the influx of people during that period, and confining the refugees to camps seemed the only feasible way of providing humanitarian assistance while at the same time controlling the populations. Kenya has attempted to reassert its control over the problem of refugees, but since the 1990s, NGOs and the UNHCR remain the implementers of policy and Kenya the advisor. However, the UNHCR is still obliged to implement policies advised by Kenya, for example, ensuring that refugees are contained in Kenya's two camps.

In the beginning of the 1990s the majority of refugees arriving in Kenya did not automatically settle in camps. Many were able to self-settle until government action in the 1990s forced them to relocate to Kenya's camps, including Dadaab, Kakuma, and coastal camps near Mombasa. The refugees in the coastal camps thrived in comparison to those placed in Kakuma and Dadaab. They and the many refugees that self-settled relied on small businesses, such as selling electronics and clothing, which did not pay taxes. Powerful domestic economic segments of Mombasa and the coastal region prompted the government to close the coastal camps and eventually implement a policy of forced resettlement to Kakuma and Dadaab. (11) These camps have been operational since 1991 and 1992, since the onset of the war in Somalia and the emergence of the crisis in Sudan. Kakuma refugee camp is in the Turkana district of northwest Kenya, and Dadaab is in the NEP of Kenya near Somalia. Both of these regions are among the poorest in Kenya and prone to ethnic, economic, and political strife. The Organization for African Unity (OAU) Refugee Convention requires that refugee camps should be established at a "reasonable distance" from sending nations. Kakuma is only 125 kilometres from the Sudanese border and Dadaab is only 100 kilometres from Somalia. (12)

Despite adhering to OAU guidelines, these...

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