Home > News > Why Kenya’s threat to close its refugee camps is even worse than you think
201 views 9 min 0 Comment

Why Kenya’s threat to close its refugee camps is even worse than you think

- May 11, 2016
Somali refugee girls attend Koran classes at the Liban integrated academy at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, August 2, 2011. This week Kenya announced that it will be closing its refugee camps and all refugees must leave the country. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Where will 600,000 refugees go when they are kicked out of their host country? No, I’m not talking about Syrian refugees in Germany, or Greece or any state in the global north. Last week Kenya’s government announced that its “hosting of refugees has come to an end.”

This is serious. For decades Kenya has offered safe haven to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia, South Sudan and many other East African countries.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/09/kenya-says-it-will-close-all-refugee-camps-displacing-600000-people/”]Kenya says it will close all refugee camps, displacing 600,000 people[/interstitial_link]

Why? Kenya claims that the camps are recruiting grounds for the militant group al-Shabab, which has conducted devastating attacks in Kenya, including the 2015 assault on Garissa University in northwest Kenya which killed 147 students.

Many observers are already questioning whether Kenya will really follow through on the closure, whether the camps really are a haven for terrorists, and whether this action violates international law.

An equally important question is: Do these refugees have homes to which they could return?

Probably not. And the reasons aren’t just that Somalia and South Sudan won’t magically become peaceful.

Why refugees often can’t return to their homes

Why else can’t they return? Let me explain by telling you what I’ve found among Burundian refugees in Tanzania.

A year ago I wrote here at the Monkey Cage about land conflict between Burundians returning from Tanzania and their fellow citizens who had stayed in-country during the civil war.  Like Kenya, Tanzania tired of hosting its neighbors, and told Burundian refugees that they needed to go home. Like the Somalis in Kenya, some Burundians returned voluntarily while others tried desperately to remain in their host country. In 2012 Tanzania’s government officially closed Mtabila refugee camp, sending away the remaining 35,000 refugees through what the United Nations and international community called a process of “orderly return.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/27/are-elections-straining-burundis-fragile-peace/”]Are elections straining Burundi’s fragile peace?[/interstitial_link]

Once back in Burundi, these “returnees” faced serious problems. Thousands found that the land they or their families had before the war was occupied. Violence between the “résidents” and “repatriés” included intimidation, crop destruction, rape and murder on both sides. These disputes crossed ethnic, and even nuclear family, lines. This wasn’t simply a reflection of the largely Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict that sent the “repatriés” abroad in the first place.

Moreover, after living in Tanzania for 20 to 40 years, some returnees didn’t feel fully “Burundian.” They may not have known where their familial land was. The younger generation had never even lived in Burundi. Some spoke Tanzanian Swahili rather than Burundian Kirundi or mixed the two languages.

This is not the only such case. A study of Ethiopians who fled that country’s civil war in 1984 and returned in 1993 found that after nearly a decade abroad, the refugees were not “returning home,” but had to build new lives and establish new relationships with their community.

This is what I wrote about last March. A month later, tens of thousands of Burundians began fleeing the country as President Pierre Nkurunziza started a bloody campaign to stay in power for a controversial third term in office. Today roughly 250,000 Burundians have sought refuge in neighboring countries; more than 137,000 of whom are in Tanzania.

Here’s what Burundians say about why they fled, this time 

Most media coverage of the Burundian refugee crisis makes an implicit assumption that all refugees are fleeing the political crisis. Indeed the situation in Burundi – and in the capital city Bujumbura in particular – is dire, replete with grenade attacks, assassinations, torture, repression, and “silent war” in the countryside that’s going largely unreported.

But there’s still more to Burundi’s refugee crisis.

For the past six months I have been speaking with Burundian refugees living in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp. Every day I ask Burundians why they fled, and they respond, “We were afraid.” Afraid of what, I ask? And for many – especially those for whom this is their second, third or fourth time fleeing – the answer isn’t primarily about President Nkurunziza’s third-term mandate. Rather, it’s land conflict and other difficulties when they tried to return.

All too many widows, husbands and siblings in camp tell me how their family members were killed for their land after returning to Burundi. They are afraid they would be next. Adding insult to injury, roughly 90 percent of Burundians are subsistence famers. So, even if they avoided a violent fight, without land to cultivate, they were struggling just to feed, clothe and house their families.

With President Nkurunziza’s election bid wreaking havoc, many “returnees” believed that the political chaos would give cover to those who wanted their land to attack them to act with impunity. So when the Burundi protests started in April and Tanzania’s opened its doors, these “returnees” were the first to leave.

When I speak with refugees who arrived more recently, though, they first mention the issues we hear in the international news (political party competition in Bujumbura, torture, fear of renewed civil war). The earlier arrivals absolutely talk about these issues as well; but they include land conflict in the same breath, if not before.

This makes sense, given what political science knows about the nature of violence during civil war. Stathis Kalyvas’ central work explains that most violence during conflict occurs over local or community-level issues, and that these conflicts tend to be combined with the national struggle.

The international diplomatic community is focused on reaching a political settlement to end the conflict between Nkurunziza’s ruling party and opposition groups. This is absolutely necessary to stop the bloodshed in Burundi. But it won’t solve Tanzania’s refugee crisis, since the current national conflict isn’t the only reason refugees fled. A national peace accord does not resolve local land conflict.

So what does this mean for Kenya’s refugees?

Of course, shutting down refugee camps may involve myriad human rights violations. Somalia and South Sudan are still fraught with the dangers that tens of thousands of their citizens fled. But it’s also important to keep in mind that forced return en masse may create new sources of civil unrest.

When hundreds of thousands of people return to a place where they haven’t lived for years, the result is unlikely to be stability and peace.

Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.