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Kenya may never close Dadaab, but its threat has exposed system failures

Kenya may never close Dadaab, but its threat has exposed system failures

When Kenya announced it would close the Dadaab refugee camp in May 2016, the world reacted with shock and recriminations. Some pointed to its commitments as a signatory to conventions protecting refugees. Others argued that Kenya must not close the camp under any circumstances.

Dadaab was opened in 1991 in north eastern Kenya and is made up of five camps. It’s home to more than 300,000 refugees, 95% of whom are from Somalia. The camp was in fact never closed largely due to a Kenya High Court decision. The court ruled that Kenya’s plan to close Dadaab was “illegal” and “discriminatory,” and that the refugees could not be forcefully relocated.

But we point out in our analysis that the negative reactions Kenya got weren’t justified, and obscured a number of fundamental issues. We also argue that Kenya had valid reasons for wishing to close Dadaab.

The international community, and particularly the UNHCR and affiliated aid organisations, have failed to offer effective solutions for Dadaab’s refugees and their host country Kenya for decades. Whether or not Kenya actually closes the camp remains to be seen, but its decision to do so is novel and important for a number of reasons. It serves to highlight the failure or unwillingness to seek durable solutions for refugees.

Kenya’s threat certainly uncovered numerous defects in the planning, preparation and modus operandi of the UNHCR and other organisations.

In this scenario, various international organisations and states conveniently carried on with business as usual at the expense of refugees, well-meaning donors and particularly Kenyans. Kenya suffered from terrorism and instability, a drop in tourism and a bad reputation as a result of that status quo. Equally as important, Dadaab’s refugees suffered the indignities of statelessness and an utter lack of options.

Explaining reactions
Our research highlighted five variables that influenced the reactions from states, international organisations such as the UNHCR, and the plethora of NGOs involved in Dadaab.

Path dependence and increasing returns: The prospect of the closure of Dadaab by Kenya – or even other alternatives – have been stoutly resisted by a number of organisations. This can be explained under what William H. Sewell Jr., professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago defines as path dependence or dependency. The longer the camp complex remains open, the more entrenched the interests become as the costs of exit rise.

As such, a combination of increasing returns and job security all form a mix that keeps Dadaab running.

Refugee discourse: Debates about refugees that have developed since the UN’s inception have had a real, physical effect on the way in which states and individuals react to – and deal – with refugees. It has developed into a system replete with laws, institutions, and camps requiring the requisite professions and jobs.

Funding and budgets: Opponents of Kenya’s decision have argued that Kenya stands to lose close to USD$100 million in revenue associated with housing refugees in Dadaab. But these economic benefits have come at a steep cost. And Kenya maintains that the long-term benefits of Dadaab’s closure outweigh the short-term costs.

Organisational perpetuation: Organisations seek to perpetuate their existence. Because financial sustainability is critical for the survival and effectiveness of all organisations – the UNHCR for example – priority is given to attracting charitable contributions by being seen to be active in high-visibility situations. The mission of providing succour to refugees allows the UNHCR and others to advertise their indispensability to donors, fill their coffers and maintain relevance. It also reifies path dependency.

5. Corruption: Many of the protests levelled by the UN and others at Kenya focused on corruption. For example, some argued that Kenya’s politicians were using the threat of closing Dadaab as a ploy to extort  more money from the European Union. Yet this may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. While the Kenyan body politic can be classified as largely corrupt, this is also the case for much of the UN, including the UNHCR.

Allegations of grand corruption at the UNHCR in Kenya date back to 2002. In their “Nairobi bubble” far removed from parallel world of Dadaab, UNHCR officials have reportedly extorted bribes from Dadaab’s refugees as part of a resettlement process that never comes to fruition.

Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah – formerly at UN-Habitat in Nairobi – documented the deliberate exaggeration or underestimation of problems by UN agencies in order to keep donor funding flowing in. This thereby sustained the political economy of Dadaab and extending the run of the corruption gravy train.

Ending a cycle
Kenya may never close Dadaab, but it had good reasons for wishing to do so. The threat has demonstrated path dependence and how ill-prepared the refugee regime is for a situation in which a sovereign state decides its security may trump international treaty obligations.

It further demonstrates a double standard whereby European states can shutter refugee camps for ostensible security reasons but Kenya cannot. This is not only disingenuous but callous.

While calls for a continuation of the status quo in Dadaab have inundated Nairobi, what is noticeably absent are offers to resettle Dadaab’s refugees outside of Kenya. Kenya’s closure of Dadaab could eventually be positive, ending a cycle wherein the international community – not Kenya – continues to fail Dadaab’s refugees.

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