What closing Kenyan refugee camps means for Somalia
© Getty Images

A few years ago in Kenya, I met a little boy from Somalia. He'd been found clinging to his mother's corpse, weak and in shock. Militants had destroyed both his village and his family, and his future looked bleak. I realized that if, one day, he has a family of his own to provide for, he may face a difficult choice to survive: Join violent extremists, or let his family starve. Sadly, this story is echoed by thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia's deadly combination of drought, famine and political instability.

Kenya's struggle

Kenya hosts about 492,046 Somali refugees, most of whom fled the 1991 civil war and government collapse. This means that an entire generation exists who wouldn't recognize Somalia today, as well as youth who have never even been to Somalia. But recently, Kenya's government announced plans to close two of its largest refugee camps, Dadaab and Kakuma. Although it faces global condemnation for this decision, Kenya maintains that these camps threaten its national security and significantly burden Kenya's economy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Kenya has always been a strong regional force. In fact, its largest deployment of troops was a 2011 effort to combat al-Shabaab in Somalia. But consistently putting its troops, country and resources on the line for its neighbors has clearly taken a toll. Furthermore, this counterterrorism effort may be counterproductive, inadvertently strengthening groups like al-Shabab.

Nowhere to go

Forcibly returning Somali refugees back to Somalia is not the solution. The Somali government is unable to protect and provide for its current inhabitants; adding thousands more will only strain an inherently unstable country. These refugees would return to a breeding ground for insurgency, human trafficking and kidnapping, trapping its inhabitants in a cycle of poverty that makes innocent people targets for groups like al-Shabaab.

Since 2016 began, al-Shabaab has orchestrated attacks in Somalia daily, targeting the Somali and Kenyan militaries, government and civilians alike. The growth of militant groups, who control vast swaths of the country, will further destabilize the region economically, politically and socially.

I recently returned from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. There, I met with political and business leaders, local nationals and even ex-warlords who wish to integrate into the new government. The potential and desire to build resilient communities and government systems is there. But I experienced the reality of the violent environment firsthand; in just days, I was in close proximity to numerous mortar attacks and killings. I cannot imagine people returning to such a volatile conflict zone — with few jobs, no real government control and constant attacks by extremists, how can we expect Somalis to return there?

What can be done?

If Somali refugees are suddenly repatriated, they will return to a country where attacks on schools and hospitals are widespread and security concerns about kidnappings and explosions from improvised explosive devices are part of daily life. And, perhaps most unsettling, they'll return to a country where they face a severe lack of economic and educational opportunities.

The economic burden of refugees cannot be borne by one nation alone; it should be the responsibility of the international community, led by organizations like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. We need to invest in holistic yet targeted solutions instead of simply closing existing camps and forcing refugees back into an unstable homeland.

We must invest in strengthening Somalia from within and focus on building resilient communities for people to return to. We need to empower leaders to govern effectively and transparently while encouraging participatory elections and economic reforms. We must amplify voices and support parliamentary and presidential elections slated for August. And we must create a unified Somali military that is well-trained and well-equipped.

The United States is assisting in securing kinetic gains. But military strength alone will not eradicate the extremist groups fueling conflict in the region. The Somali government is not yet able to provide basic security and public services to regions that have been liberated from al-Shabaab. This means we must include development efforts in the before, during and after of military and diplomatic intervention.

Yes, upgrading refugee camps and improving the resettlement process is important. But refugee camps are not — and must not become — a permanent solution. Rather, they should be places where victims of political instability, famine and drought can safely take refuge.

These camps should be temporary homes, and they should be spaces where children like the little boy I met in Somalia can rekindle hope: hope of rebuilding his life. And by strengthening Somalia from within, we can ensure refugees are welcomed back by a resilient community, empowered to build toward their own vision of a flourishing Somalia, not those of extremist groups. The international community must take unified action.

Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Mina also serves as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she develops community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.