Kenya’s high court has temporarily blocked the closure of two refugee camps hosting more than 400,000 people, according to media reports and activists.
On March 24, Kenyan Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i announced the government’s intention to shut the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, giving the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) two weeks to present a plan to do so. The ministry called this an “ultimatum” and said there was no room for further negotiations.
On Thursday, the court stayed the closure for 30 days, according to a copy of the court seen by news organisations. It originated from a petition filed by a local politician challenging a move to shut down the camps.
Some of us have not been sleeping about it. Finally an order staying the enforcement of the ultimatum has been issued by the High Court. A threat to one right is a threat to all rights! pic.twitter.com/KqREePjHzr
— Peter Solo Gichira (@sologish) April 8, 2021
In March, the UNHCR urged the government to ensure that those who need protection continue to get it, and pledged to keep engaging in a dialogue.
“The decision would have an impact on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
The Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya together host more than 410,000 people, mainly from Somalia but also from countries such as South Sudan and Ethiopia.
Citing national security concerns, authorities in Nairobi first signalled their plans to shut the Dadaab camp, which is closer to the border with Somalia than Kakuma, back in 2016.
That plan was blocked by the high court, which called the move unconstitutional.
Kakuma, home to more than 190,000 refugees, is located in Kenya’s northwest. Dadaab is in eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border, but many Somalis have moved between the two camps.
Dadaab was established three decades ago and was once the world’s largest refugee camp, which at its peak hosted more than half a million people fleeing violence and drought in Somalia.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, residents in both camps have urged the Kenyan government to reverse its decision.
“It’s very terrifying because we do not know the next step, like where are we going to go from here,” David Omot, an Ethiopian who has lived in both Kakuma and Dadaab since 2005, said of the closure order. “Where will we go? Back home we still have some insecurity, there are still some problems that people are facing, especially the youths.”
Austin Baboya, a South Sudanese 26-year-old based in Kakuma, said he has not known any other home than a refugee camp.
“I don’t know if the [Kenyan] government have sat down and considered the lives of people living in the camp or they just wake up and make those decisions,” Baboya said, calling on UNHCR and international donors to help find a solution.
“Before the camp was open very many people lost lives. Very many people fled their home countries … They have found a place to call home and I don’t think many of them are willing to go back.”