This is a guest post by Alex Dick-Godfrey, program coordinator, Studies administration for the Council on Foreign Relations Studies program.
Even before the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya last September, the Kenyan government was wary of the threat posed by Somali terrorist organizations, especially al-Shabaab. After the attack, Kenyan lawmakers heightened their focus on the terrorist organization, and swiftly retaliated. There was also an almost immediate backlash against the nearly 500,000 Somali refugees currently in Kenya. Many Kenyans suspect the Westgate Mall attackers came from a refugee camp, and the presence of the camps has long been a source of tension for the communities around them. Kenya would be wise, however, to not disproportionately blame Somali refugees for security issues within Kenya.
In November, Somali and Kenyan governments signed an agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to begin repatriating Somali refugees. This move is largely seen as a reaction to the allegations that al-Shabaab used the Dadaab Refugee Complex, located in north-eastern Kenya, as their logistical base before the attack. To help repatriation, the Kenyan government has offered Somali refugees two hundred dollars to cover the costs of the move. Coupled with increasingly strong rhetoric from Kenyan politicians about Somali repatriation, this money represents an increase of pressure against Somali refugees.
Hawa Noor and Emmanuel Kisiangani from the Institute of Strategic Studies recently released an article arguing that Kenya and Somalia should not force, or unnecessarily expedite, what is supposed to be the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. The authors rightly note that Kenya has human rights obligations to asylum seekers in their country, but they also acknowledge Kenya’s right to ensure its own national security
Al-Shabaab certainly recruits from the ethnic Somali population in Kenya, but it is likely that repatriation of this group will prove counter-productive to Kenya’s national security. Kenya’s involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia, and the repeated strikes on al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia have cemented Kenya’s position as an enemy of the terror group. Serious internal problems with uneven economic growth, poverty, and structural inequality also ensures that Kenya will remain an excellent recruiting ground for al-Shabaab. Essentially, the threat from al-Shabaab would not leave with the Somali refugees.
Forced repatriation of Somali refugees, or even the perception of such, could build resentment among affected individuals and boost al-Shabaab’s appeal and recruitment efforts. It is also unlikely that either the Somali or Kenyan governments have the ability or political will to actually guard the porous border between them. Despite the two hundred dollars, many refugees, or newly minted al-Shabaab operatives, are likely to return to Kenya. The influx of people into southern Somalia is also likely to destabilize the country, which would prove more problematic to Kenya.
Kenya should be less concerned about repatriating Somali refugees. Instead the focus should be on handling internal problems. It is unfortunate that Kenya shoulders a large amount of the refugees from their neighbor’s decades-old conflict, but it is actually in Kenya’s best interest to be patient in dealing with Somali refugees.