Kenya court blocks closure of Dadaab refugee camp

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 28, 2015 shows an overview of the part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. A Kenyan court cancelled the closing of the Dadaab refugee camp, AFP reported on February 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Tony KARUMBA

Kenya’s High Court on Thursday blocked the government’s decision to close the Dadaab refugee camp — the world’s largest — and to send Somali refugees home.

Judge John Mativo ruled that the plan to shut down the camp was unconstitutional and amounted to persecution of refugees.

Dadaab is home to some 256,000 people, the vast majority of them Somalis who fled across the border following the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

The government has taken a hardline stance on the sprawling camp, saying it acts as a terrorist training ground for Shabaab Islamists, and repeatedly stating its intention to deport all Somali refugees.

But Mativo ruled that “the government decision specifically targetting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional”.

The shutdown was ordered without proper consultation of people affected by the decision, in violation of the constitutional right to fair legal proceedings, he said in his ruling.

“Hence the said decision is null and void,” he said, adding that sending refugees home would be in breach of Kenya’s obligations under international law.

The ruling also blocks the government’s decision to disband the Department for Refugee Affairs.

The government can appeal the court ruling, which comes after the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and rights group Kituo Cha Sheria filed a case challenging the legality of the shutdown.

Amnesty International’s East Africa chief Muthoni Wanyeki hailed the ruling as “historic”.

“Today is a historic day for more than a quarter of a million refugees who were at risk of being forcefully returned to Somalia, where they would have been at serious risk of human rights abuses,” Wanyeki said.

“This ruling reaffirms Kenya’s constitutional and international legal obligation to protect people who seek safety from harm and persecution.”

– Security threat? –
The government caught refugees, aid groups, the United Nations and Kenya’s Western partners offguard last May when it announced plans to shut down the huge camp near the border, citing security concerns.

Since sending troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2011, Kenya has come under repeated attack from Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab militants.

The government has presented Dadaab as a security risk, saying Somali Islamists inside the camp planned the Shabaab attacks at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and the Garissa university attack in 2015, though it has not provided evidence.

Authorities initially planned to close Dadaab at the end of November, but delayed the shutdown until May 2017 at the request of the UN refugee agency and against a backdrop of growing accusations of forced refugee returns to Somalia.

In September, Human Rights Watch warned in a report that the repatriation of Somalis from the camp violated international standards and that refugees were returning home involuntarily only to face persecution and hunger. The Kenyan government dismissed the report.

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