Would forcibly sending Somali refugees home improve Kenya’s security?

On 11th of April, 2015, the Kenyan Deputy President Hon. William Ruto ordered the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close the Dadaab refugee camp within three months. This means that a total of 335,565 Somali refugees will be required to leave Kenya by end of June 2015 or the Kenyan Government will forcibly remove them. This news was jubilantly received by Kenyans, if late night news polls are anything to go by.

However few are critically and rationally reviewing the rationale of moving the refugees and its implications. This blog post attempts to do this as a way of contributing to the debate on the efficacy of such a move. The posts looks at who a refugee is and addresses the nexus between hosting them and national security in Kenya. It also looks at the implications of forcible repatriation of these refugees into Somalia. It concludes by addressing alternative means to address Kenya’s security challenge while adhering to the law governing refugee protection.

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who flees their home; crosses an internationally recognized border to seek protection from persecution (loosely defined as discriminatory treatment) or events seriously disturbing public order. According to available statistics there are about 1.6 m refugees in the world 50% of whom are under the age of 18 while 49% are women. In Kenya, the refugee population stands at about 569,772 with a majority being Somali refugees followed by Ethiopian and Congolese refugees. Most of the refugees in Kenya, like the Somali, have fled their countries of origin owing to conflict; much like the Kenyans that live in Uganda having fled the post-election violence in 2007/08.

A person becomes a refugee after an evaluation process called the refugee status determination (RSD). This process sieves genuine refugees from other non-deserving elements such as combatants and terrorists. Therefore, before a person can be granted refugee status, their refugee claim is thoroughly investigated to ensure that they are genuine. This means that refugee protection is civilian in character and its aim is to protect persons who flee their countries of origin to save their lives and limbs.

Are Somali refugees a threat to national security?

There has been a lot of talk about refugees, particularly Somali refugees, being a threat to national security. But is there any evidence to this? Recent experience shows that there is none.

In December, 2012, the Government of Kenya ordered that all urban residing refugees be relocated to the camps. The main argument presented by the government was that they presented a threat to national security and thus needed to be contained in refugee camps. A case was lodged at the High Court to challenge this argument. The government was given an opportunity to present evidence that links refugees to insecurity in the country; it failed.

In December, 2014, the Government of Kenya – through the Security Laws Amendment Act, 2014 – attempted to limit the number of refugees in the country to 150,000. A case was lodged at the High Court to inter alia challenge this provision of the Act. The government was given another opportunity to prove the causal link between hosting refugees and insecurity in the county; it failed.

These instances lead one to conclude that the government lacks evidence that links refugees to insecurity. What pervades public discourse at the moment are generalizations not based on facts. But if there isn’t evidence directly linking refugees to the current insecurity in the country, why are they being targeted? The answer to this question lies in the gaps in our security system.

The Refugee Consortium of Kenya conducted a study in 2012 that partly looked at security at the Dadaab refugee camp. One of the findings was that Somali refugees, particularly those that left Somalia in 2011, escaped forcible recruitment into al-Shabaab. Further, the report showed that even after escaping into Kenya to seek asylum from this militia, some recruiters still followed them to Dadaab to recruit their children and young men. How is this possible? How can al-Shabaab access the Dadaab refugee camp without detection?

This investigative piece appears to provide an answer: corruption and complacency. Granted that the Kenya-Somali border is porous, riddled with many unofficial routes (panya [rat] routes), however corruption poses the greater danger to our national security. This is how arms and combatants can be able to make their way from Somali, past government check points to recruit refugee children into their ranks. This is how arms and militia personnel can be able to come from Somalia past government check points and hit Nairobi’s Westgate Mall and Garissa University College.

Be that as it may, al-Shabaab operatives are not the only ones recruiting fighters from the camps. In a 2009 report, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) stood accused of militarizing the camp. Young Somali men were openly and blatantly recruited to join the Transitional Government Forces (TGF) fighting al-Shabaab at the time. Although the exercise was later abandoned, damage had already been done as most of these fighters, with arms and training from the KDF ended up joining the ranks of al-Shabaab. This demonstrates complacency on the part of the government which is supposed to protect the lives of civilian populations in distress of terror from the al-Shabaab militia.

What are the implications of forcibly sending refugees to Somalia?

The first and obvious implication would be Kenya would be in violation of its national and international obligation to protect refugees. The law dictates that refugees cannot be forcibly taken back to their country of origin where the threat to their lives or physical integrity still exists. This is the principle of non-refoulement. In the Somali case, al-Shabaab is still a real threat for Somali refugees and this could be the reason many of them are hesitant to return home despite there being a tripartite agreement aimed at voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in safety and dignity.

Secondly, and perhaps not so obvious, is the danger of driving fresh recruits into the hands of al-Shabaab. Forcibly pushing these refugees into Somalia would first create resentment and secondly foment desperation. Al-Shabaab would be keen to use these two ingredients to recruit this population into its ranks.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it will divert attention from the real issues affecting our security system: corruption and complacency. Kenyans know only too well that billions of shillings have been diverted from public coffers for private gain. This includes security related contracts. Before the Garissa attack, there was huge public outcry over the level of corruption in the internal security docket (as it then was).

Another monster is the complacency levels within the security structure in Kenya. How often have we heard that intelligence of an attack here or there was available and nothing was done to prevent it? How often have we been regaled by blame games following a terrorist attack and nothing seems to change? During the Westgate attack it was the lack of coordination that prolonged the siege after KDF forces shot and killed a Recce company squad leader leading the latter to retreat. Again lack of coordination cost more lives in the Garissa attack where the Recce company took more than eight hours to arrive at the scene to conduct a 12 minute operation. It should not be lost on Kenyans that these lapses, what I call complacency, is the major reason the government cannot contain the terror menace.

What alternatives are there to forcible repatriation?

The first alternative to this is to officially recognize combating corruption and complacency as a key pillar to the counter-terrorism strategy in Kenya. These are the real challenges plaguing national security in the country. So long as these two exist, Kenyans may not know any reprieve from terror attacks.

Secondly, the intelligence and operation branches of the security forces should endevour to isolate and arrest those individuals in the camps recruiting refugees into al-Shabaab. These are the real culprits and a serious threat to Kenya’s national security.

Thirdly, the Government of Kenya should focus more on the voluntary repatriation process already in place. Through this process, Somali refugees will peacefully and voluntarily relocate into Somalia without the risk of bitterness that may drive them into the hands of the determined al-Shabaab operatives.


In conclusion, it should be noted that the refugee regime is a civilian and humanitarian affair. The regime has a protective element embedded in it that segregates genuine asylum seekers from individuals involved in military operations and terrorism. Forcibly sending Somali refugees into Somali may prove to be counter-productive especially if the Kenyan Government is serious about stemming radicalization. Seriously dealing with corruption and complacency will provide a long-term efficient counter-terrorism strategy as opposed to blanket condemnation of a population in need of protection.