Feeling the Pinch: Kenya, Al-Shabaab, and East Africa's Refugee Crisis

By Burns, avery | Refuge, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Feeling the Pinch: Kenya, Al-Shabaab, and East Africa's Refugee Crisis


Burns, avery, Refuge


With the situation in Somalia deteriorating by the minute, time is of the essence. No one is feeling the pinch as much as Kenya. No one is feeling the pinch as much as Kenya. An influx of refugees and insecurity, indeed, Kenya is bearing the burden of the failed state in its neighbourhood. But Kenya's inaction could be coming to an end. (1)

Kenya is dealing with several major concurrent crises: a humanitarian crisis, a political crisis, and a national security crisis. These crises reflect aspects of a national dilemma as Kenya struggles to deal with a continuous influx of refugees, major domestic political turmoil, and overt threats to its national security stemming from the Somali armed faction, Al-Shabaab. Prior to the refugee crisis beginning in the 1990s, Kenya had a laissezfaire attitude towards refugee hosting because the size of the influx was much more manageable and refugees were not deemed a major threat to national security. (2) However, in the early 1990s Kenya's neighbours, mainly Sudan and Somalia, dissolved into conflict, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek asylum in Kenya. The influx overwhelmed Kenya's capacity to manage the populations, and the government pushed for a policy of containing refugees in two camps, Dadaab and Kakuma. Dadaab is composed of three camps, Dagahale, Ifo and Hagadera. Dadaab is the name of the refugee site and collectively refers to all camps. At present, Dadaab is the world's largest refugee camp and is dangerously over capacity. (3) Kenya continues to host refugees, albeit reluctantly, as it wishes to remain in good standing with the international community. However, its commitment to East Africa's refugee crisis is being sidelined by its own domestic strife and threats to its national security stemming from Somalia. Kenya is still reeling from the aftermath of its election violence in 2008 and is on edge as the threat from Somalia was made all the more concrete when Al-Shabaab bombed Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010. (4) Consequently, Kenya's tolerance for the ongoing refugee problem which peaked in the 1990s due to major conflicts in the region is waning and concurrently issues of national security are growing.

Kenya holds a strategic geopolitical position and its humanitarian, political, and security issues are of great regional and international concern. Much of East Africa's stability depends on Kenya's stability as it is the economic epicentre for the region, and Nairobi is home to regional headquarters for embassies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the United Nations. Furthermore, Kenya is of major strategic interest in the global campaign against terrorism. In 1998 a truck loaded with explosives drove into the US embassy in downtown Nairobi, killing 214 people, most of them Kenyan nationals. This was followed by a bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002. These bombings were both attributed to Al-Qaeda and elevated Kenya into the international arena for the war on terror. (5) It is in this context of the threat of externally based terrorism that Kenya has grown wary of armed factions, like Al-Shabaab, infiltrating refugee populations residing in the country. Al-Shabaab is an organization that has been in operation since 2006 and although its primary efforts have been to overthrow the Somali government it has also threatened to attack Kenya in hopes of annexing Kenya's North Eastern Province (NEP) into Somalia. (6) Already having been a victim of terrorism, Kenya is taking the Al-Shabaab threat quite seriously.

Kenya has every right to take the Al-Shabaab threat seriously. Al-Shabaab has been infiltrating the Somali population in Kenya to recruit more fighters and gain additional support. Recently, it has been reported by Human Rights Watch and other news agencies that Kenya is retaliating by infiltrating the Somali community itself to recruit refugees to return to Somalia to fight alongside the opponents of Al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

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Feeling the Pinch: Kenya, Al-Shabaab, and East Africa's Refugee Crisis
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