Posted on May 19, 2016

Refugees Shouldn’t Be Bargaining Chips

Ben Rawlence, New York Times, May 17, 2016

IN March, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal: Turkey would build camps to house refugees who were refused entry to Europe, and the European Union would pay for them — 3 billion euros (about $3.4 billion) in the first instance, with another 3 billion euros to follow. Other countries were watching closely, and we are now beginning to see the repercussions.

On May 3, the West African country of Niger demanded 1.1 billion euros (about $1.2 billion) from the European Union to stop migrants on their way to Libya and the Mediterranean. Then, last week, Kenya’s government announced that it planned to close the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, citing Europe’s example of turning away Syrians to justify its plan to forcibly return nearly 600,000 Somali refugees to Somalia.

Karanja Kibicho, a senior Kenyan government official responsible for counterterrorism, declared–tellingly, in a British newspaper–“we can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the international community’s weakening obligations to the refugees.” He also noted “a falloff in the voluntary international funding for the camps in Kenya, in favor of raising budgets in the Northern Hemisphere to refugees headed to the West.”

Refugee camps are chronically underfunded. But Kenya’s proposal is not about the needs of the refugees–it is a demand for ransom. Kenya has threatened to close the camps twice already, citing security concerns following terrorist attacks on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry promised $45 million in extra aid for Kenya–aid that is unlikely to go anywhere near the camps, which are entirely paid for by the United Nations.

Having cried wolf before, Kenya has had to work harder to gain international attention. To prove its seriousness, last week it disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs and revoked prima facie refugee status for Somalis seeking asylum, which ensures that future arrivals will be undocumented and at immediate risk of deportation. Kenya has also relentlessly scapegoated refugees for terrorism, undeterred by the lack of any evidence linking the camps to attacks.

The truth is more cynical still. Kenyan forces that had invaded Somalia to combat the Shabab, extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda, were last year revealed to be collaborating with the very same group in smuggling charcoal and sugar to the tune of up to $400 million. In response, the Somali government passed a motion calling for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia. Going on the offensive against refugees means international energy will be focused on persuading Kenya not to close the refugee camps, rather than on making it behave itself in Somalia.