Monday’s World Refugee Day will refocus attention on the plight of those forced from their homes because of conflicts afflicting multiple continents. These refugees are part of an even greater global migration — the subject of this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue (and the topic at an October Global Minnesota conference) — that has resulted in displacement levels not seen since World War II.
Along with searing images of joyful refugees safely reaching Greek islands (or tragically dying trying to do so), refugee-driven political repercussions roiling Europe are fixating Western eyes on the Mediterranean migration crisis.
But elsewhere, equally vexing diaspora challenges are having dramatic impact, too.
In East Africa, for instance, the threat by the Kenyan government to close Dadaab — the world’s largest refugee camp — is a crisis that could further destabilize the region and result in refugees illegally being placed in danger.
That’s the view of many diplomats, defense experts and human rights advocates, as well as every member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, according to an open letter they wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry. The eight representatives and two senators urged Kerry to help prevent Kenya from closing the camp that’s teeming with an estimated 350,000 Somalis who have fled endless warfare in their homeland.
It’s not just an issue for the Horn of Africa, they argued, but here in Minnesota, where thousands of Somalis have resettled.
“The involuntary repatriation of more than 350,000 refugees is a violation of international law that would cause a humanitarian crisis counterproductive to regional stability,” the bipartisan delegation wrote to Kerry. “We have already begun hearing significant concerns from our Somali-American constituents, and there is growing concern among the community of the harmful impacts the closure of the refugee camp will have in East Africa. We respectfully urge you to work with the United Nations and regional partners to prevent the closure of Dadaab, an action that would threaten the lives of thousands of refugees.”
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer’s Sixth District is home to many Somali-Americans. In an interview, he rhetorically asked: “If they do follow through with this and dismantle it, where do these people go, and what new problems are you creating? I think there has to be a better solution.”
The threat is real, said Prof. Abdi I. Samatar, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society. “It would be a cruel affair for the refugees just to be pushed and dumped in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
In a statement, the Kenyan government justified its decision “for reasons of pressing national security that speak to the safety of Kenyans,” and it claimed that the horrific carnage from attacks on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi and at Garissa University, among other targets, “were planned and deployed from Dadaab Refugee Camp from transnational terrorist groups.”
But “the evidence that Al-Shabab is using Dadaab is very weak,” said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
This does not mean that Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based terrorist organization, isn’t a lethal threat within Kenya. Yet other security, social and political factors must also be accounted for, Bruton said.
“There is a lot of hostility within Kenya toward the Somali population and a real sentiment that Somali refugees are a security threat,” she said. “It’s obvious that the security threat from Somalia is indeed creeping over the border into Kenya, but I think that the linkage between that and the refugee problem is a lot more tenuous.”
Politics is at play (of course). Just as it is in Europe and the U.S., terrorism is a top topic in Kenya, and the country’s scheduled presidential election next year may make closing Dadaab a domestic issue as much as an international one.
This is not the first threat to close Dadaab, and Samatar believes the latest declaration is a negotiating tactic to get the U.S. and some European nations to restore cuts to expenditures on African Union troops in Somalia.
Kenyan troops are in Somalia, too. But Bruton believes that there’s more to the motivation than just combating Al-Shabab. Kenya has “effectively annexed Somali territory and they’ve done it for reasons that have nothing to do with Somalia’s security and everything to do with Kenya’s interests, and that’s quite transparent to everyone,” she said.
Added Samatar: “Kenya’s military policy toward Somalia has not been as generous as its refugee policy.”
There are some influential international incentives, however, that may continue Kenya’s refugee hospitality generous.
Kerry’s and European foreign ministers’ diplomacy, for one (perhaps along with a recalibration of the funding cuts). But other institutional and informal pressures may be equally effective in convincing Kenya to keep Dadaab open.
“They benefit significantly from their good standing in the international community with governments, businesses and tourists,” Bruton said. “If they do something that’s uniformly perceived as violent and abusive, their economy will suffer from it and they will also face diminishing aid and cooperation and may well find themselves facing charges of some kind from an international body.”
All of this depends on pressure. Which means that the global gaze must extend beyond World Refugee Day. And while the triumphs and tragedies of those crossing the Mediterranean must remain a focus, so must other crises.
The Kenyan government needs to know that the world’s concerned — about Kenya’s security, of course, but also about desperate refugees. As evidenced by the delegation’s letter, and by understandable scrutiny from many Somalis here at home, Minnesotans certainly are.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.