This month’s bloody attack at Garissa was Kenya’s worst since the 1998 US Embassy bombing. Al-Shabaab – the Islamist armed group based in Somalia – claims credit for the attack, which killed at least 147 people at Garissa including 142 students, and injured one hundred more.
Since Kenyan troops deployed in Somalia against Al-Shabaab in 2011, the group has claimed responsibility for several major attacks in Kenya, including the devastating 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.
In response to the carnage in Garissa, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto has announced that Kenya wants to close the country’s Dadaab refugee camp – the world’s largest – and send all 335,000 Somali refugees living there back home within 90 days.
But why are the authorities linking the horrors at Garissa to Somali refugees? Ruto and other officials claim that refugees are responsible for Kenya’s insecurity, but there’s no evidence to support this claim. Kenyan security forces reportedly killed all four of the Garissa gunmen, none of whom appear to have been refugees. To date, not a single Somali refugee has been prosecuted or convicted of any attack in Kenya.
The Kenyan public’s anger over the Garissa attack and wider security fears are understandable. But the fact is most Somali refugees share these same fears too. Since 2006 hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled Al-Shabaab-related abuses and fighting to seek refuge in Dadaab and elsewhere. Over the years, many have told me how terrified they are of the group’s violence and tactics, which include forced child recruitment and suicide attacks.
And the threat Al-Shabaab poses in Somalia is very real too. The UN refugee agency says governments, including Kenya’s, should not return anyone to parts of south-central Somalia where there is fighting, or which remain under control of groups like Al-Shabaab.
This advice is based on international and Kenyan law, which clearly prohibit the forced return of refugees or asylum seekers to any place where they face a real risk of persecution or other serious harm.
In all, more than 400,000 registered Somali refugees live in Kenya. Every one of them is now holding their breath to see whether Kenya really will rip up the rule book and send them home.