DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — As dawn breaks in this dusty and sprawling settlement of 350,000 people, residents of the world’s largest refugee camp trek along main roads, carrying bags as they head to the markets to open up for business following early-morning prayers.
Shop owners hawk cellphones, clothing, goat meat, milk and other staples in the humid air scented by spiced tea and diesel. The market, run by refugees, is thriving, part of a bustling, massive pop-up “city” that over the years has become a regional commercial hub, but one that the Kenyan government now wants to dismantle.
In the face of intense criticism from Somalia and international bodies, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaisserry announced last month that Nairobi will close what is now the refugee camp at Dadaab and repatriate the mostly Somali refugees, saying the massive settlement harbors terrorists.
Dadaab lies about 60 miles from Garissa University in northeastern Kenya, where 147 people — including 142 students — were killed last year in an attack by militant Somalia-based Islamist group al-Shabab. The group for years has attacked Kenyan targets in retaliation for Kenyan soldiers fighting them in their home base.
“Due to Kenya’s national security interest, the government has decided that hosting of refugees has to come to an end,” Mr. Nkaisserry said. “The government acknowledges that this decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees. The international community must collectively take responsibility [for them].”
The United Nations’ lead refugee agency has urged Kenya to delay the closure, warning that sending Somali refugees back to their homeland, still rife with instability, would be unsafe and inhumane. But just this week, Kenyan officials said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had acquiesced to the decision to close Dadaab in a private meeting in Brussels.
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“It is now an internationally accepted fact that the closure is going to be done, and the refugees have said they are not opposed to it,” Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed told allAfrica.com, adding that 14,000 refugees had already been flown home to Somalia.
But some warn that closing Dadaab will have a clear and negative impact on Kenyan society and its economy.
“The government of Kenya is going to destroy this [region] if they close all camps and repatriate refugees,” said Bashir Abdikarir, a Somali and a member of one of Dadaab’s business associations at Ifo camp, one of five that make up the sprawling Dadaab complex.
“Most businesses here are run by refugees,” he said. “They will destroy our businesses and destroy their city.”
The camp was initially established as a provisional haven for 90,000 refugees fleeing the 1991 clan warfare in Somalia that eventually ousted President Siad Barre and led to 20-plus years of instability and warfare. It is now a bustling complex of five camps, boasting makeshift cinemas and soccer leagues, businesses, schools, hospitals and even a graveyard. It also has elected representatives in a local council and a local security force.
Dadaab is not officially counted as a city. But if it were, it would be the country’s third largest after Nairobi and Mombasa, according to the World Bank. If it were an independent country in Africa, it would be larger than the Seychelles, Sao Tome and Principe — and its population would top 11 African capitals.
“Dadaab is not just a camp, but it’s also a commercial hub, it’s a city in its own,” said Mr. Abdikarir. “The camp provides services and a ready market for residents and a huge tax return to the Kenyan government. We pay more tax than locals.”
Dadaab injects an estimated $14 million into the Kenyan economy annually, according to a World Bank report last year. Another report by the governments of Norway and Denmark puts the contribution at twice that figure.
At the same time, the World Bank report said commercial activities in the camp boost the regional economy. In Dadaab there are hundreds of shopping centers, kiosks, taxi and bus services and hotels. The host community earned some $1.8 million from the sale of livestock alone to refugees, analysts estimate.
The camp sits in one of the poorest regions in Kenya, a bright spot offering employment for refugees and locals. As a result, the impending closure has many worried.
“I have been depending on this camp to earn a living,” said Dhublawe Ibrahim, a father of four and a Kenyan taxi driver who works in Dadaab. “We’ll obviously lose our jobs when the government closes the camp, and life will become hard.”
Halima Gure, 40, who owns a clothing shop at Hagadera market, one of the biggest in Dadaab, said the region will lack services if the refugees are repatriated.
“Most locals in this northern region come here to buy clothes and food in bulk,” said Ms. Gure, a mother of 10, who arrived at the camp in 2012 after al-Shabab militants overran her native Gedo region in Somalia. “The market is an economic hub for residents here, and it’s run mostly by refugees. When we leave there will be no business here.”
Many in the region complain that the government believes only Somalis — the majority of the refugees in the camp — would be affected by the closure. They say that fails to take into account that over the more than two decades of the camp’s existence, intermarriage between Kenyans and the refugees has become normal, which has in turn promoted the growth of the camp, said Nazlin Umar Fazaldin Rajput, a political analyst and chair of National Muslim Council of Kenya.
“Refugees have intermarried with Kenyans and created families; the offspring of these unions are citizens of all social classes,” she said. “In the northeastern region, joint business ventures have been established by the refugees and locals,” warning of “the negative impact that will descend upon our weakening economy” if the refugees are sent home.
Somalian Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said the refugees have been unfairly blamed for terror incidents such as the Garissa university massacre inside Kenya, but said his first priority now is to make sure the shutdown is orderly.
“We want our refugees back, definitely,” he said in an interview on WashingtonPost.com last week. “But you have to calibrate the way they are coming back. You can’t just throw them back with nothing.”
The aftershocks may be felt even beyond the region, some say.
There are more than 100 schools in the camp, with trained teachers and an education system that is far better than what is available in Somalia, say refugees, as are the employment opportunities after graduation.
The closure has the students worried too.
“I don’t want to go to Somalia,” said 10-year-old Ahmed Farah, who studies at Towfiq Community Primary School in the camp. “I will miss out on my education and be forced to drop out of school if this camp is closed. I want to complete my education and become a teacher.”