The situation of refugees may change for the better if humanitarian and development agencies adopt integrated strategies to meet both the needs of refugees and their host communities. These sentiments came out during a meeting called to discuss the fate of refugees in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.
This meeting was coming in the wake of an announcement by the Kenyan government in May that it would close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, by November 2016.
According to Catherine Hamon from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 160,000 refugees in Dadaab who are from South Sudan, and who will be affected by the repatriation order.
She said the Dadaab issue had forced stakeholders to reflect on alternative models of managing refugee affairs.
“Keeping them in camps is not the best solution…there are better alternatives to keeping them in camps,” she said, adding that some of the refugees were professionals who should be given an opportunity to be productive members of society.
She said that there are models that have worked in other countries like Uganda and Tanzania, and which could be replicated or modified to fit other refugee situations.
Caroline Njuki from Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) said the regional body and other member states were concerned about the plight of refugees in the region, and wanted a situation where refugees would live in dignity and be productive.
“We need to think of displacement in terms of development…we can no longer continue planning for emergencies alone…we are going to engage to bring humanitarian and development partners together,” she said.
She said that stakeholders are considering adopting a model that is being used in Kalobeyei, a new settlement in northern Kenya, which is expected to accommodate more than 60,000 refugees and host communities.
The programme focuses on both short-term (humanitarian) and long-term (sustainable development) interventions, in which refugees and the host community have access to social services and develop economic ties to build sustainable livelihoods. This model reduces potential conflicts between local communities and refugees, while also reducing long term dependency on aid agencies.
In the past, there have been conflicts between host communities and refugees, with the hosts feeling that they are being ignored by humanitarian and aid agencies, at the expense of refugees.
Caroline said that whereas regional countries have their own national interests to protect, they have a duty to honour their international obligations, one of them being to take care of refugees.
Repatriation should be voluntary
Catherine of UNHCR said that repatriation has to be voluntary; otherwise the exercise will be counterproductive as the returnees will find their way to neighbouring countries.
“There is no way the camp can be closed by 30th November, it is not practical, it is unrealistic,” she told the forum organised by Rift Valley Forum and Amnesty International in Nairobi, Kenya.
Catherine said refugees should not be forced to go back home since there was nothing they were going back to, since the places where they came from still lacked basic necessities like schools, hospitals and water.
Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns, which documents the lives of nine refugees in Dadaab, faulted the Kenyan government for its plan to close the camp, saying the decision had brought a lot of uncertainty among refugees and aid agencies.
“There should be voluntary repatriation of refugees but not repatriation with deadlines,” he said.
While asking the government of Kenya to rethink its decision, he said that all stakeholders in the region need to be involved in the exercise because the effects of the proposed repatriation will be felt beyond Kenya.
Most speakers said Kenya should not be allowed to forcefully repatriate refugees since this will send a negative signal to other countries hosting refugees, who may decide to take the same measures.
According to the UNHCR, there are 21 million refugees in the world today, with only 14% of them in the richest parts of the world. Ironically, Ethiopia, Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey host a third of the world’s refugees, while accounting for 1.6% of the world’s economy.
This conversation is taking place when UN member states are expected to meet later this month in New York to deliberate on refugee issues.
Earlier, the UN had made proposals that would have asked governments to commit to welcoming 10% of the world’s refugees annually. However, member states, led by European Union, Russia and China, opposed the UN proposals, which made sure that they were under no obligation to take in specific numbers of refugees.