Blaming refugees for everything from economic woes to terrorism is becoming a sinister global trend.
Now Kenya, home to almost 600,000 refugees – two thirds from Somalia – seems ready to join the bandwagon of European states failing to uphold their obligations to refugees and asylum seekers. On May 6, Kenyan officials stated – not for the first time – that Kenya would stop hosting refugees and close refugee camps due to environmental, economic, and security concerns.
It’s true that Kenya and its neighbors have shouldered a heavy burden for years and need sustained international support. It’s also true that Kenya faces serious security concerns linked to Somalia’s conflict. Hundreds of Kenyans have been killed in attacks by Al-Shabaab, the armed Somali Islamist group that masterminded the April 2015 massacre in Garissa and the September 2013 Westgate mall attack, among others.
But camp closures are likely to lead to mass deportation back to refugees’ countries of origin, triggering a serious violation of international and Kenyan law prohibiting forced return to persecution or other serious harm.
These actions would also wrongly blame hundreds of thousands of innocent people for a complicated, multifaceted crisis. Many Somali refugees fled horrendous abuses in Somalia, have lived in Kenya for years, well before the recent security crisis, and make enormous economic contributions to the country. Sending tens of thousands of desperate and destitute people back could force many into the hands of the Al-Shabaab recruiters they fled, exacerbating Kenya’s security problems.
Another almost 100,000 people in the camps are South Sudanese fleeing brutal civil war, and there are also thousands of Ethiopians seeking safety from political repression.
Despite frequent accusations, Kenyan government officials haven’t produced any tangible evidence that refugees are responsible for attacks. Of course, anyone responsible for crimes should be investigated and prosecuted, whatever their nationality or status. But to date, most of the individuals implicated in or prosecuted for attacks have been Kenyans – raising important questions about home grown radicalization. While the part played by discrimination and security force abuses in fostering extremist violence is unclear, multiple investigations – including parliamentary inquiries – point to pervasive corruption, lack of coordination, and other bungling by security agencies as key contributors to the failure to prevent or adequately respond to attacks.
Scapegoating refugees is easier than implementing the reforms Kenya needs to address its corruption, weak governance, and unaccountable security services. But it won’t help protect Kenyans from the real threats they face.