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Kenyan Court Rules Government Must Not Close Refugee Camp


Like the U.S., Kenya is having a national debate over refugees. Kenya is home to the world's biggest refugee camp. It's called Dadaab. Last year, the government issued an order to close the camp, but today a Kenyan court struck down that order. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta recently visited Dadaab, and he's with us now. Hey, there.


MCEVERS: So describe the camp.

PERALTA: So it's massive, and it's not really what you would expect from a refugee camp. It has stores and barbershops and churches. And a lot of the refugees, who are mostly Somali, have spent decades there. Their kids were born there.

I was there last week for what was a low point for many of them there. And a lot of the people I spoke to there felt abandoned. President Trump had just stopped a refugee resettlement, and the Kenyan government was insisting that the camp would be closed by May.

MCEVERS: Had they already started that process?

PERALTA: Oh, yeah. The first thing you see when you land in Dadaab is a row of big buses. Every morning, they shuttle refugees just across the border to Somalia. And there's just a ton of confusion. While I was there, I spoke to a 21-year-old, Waraga Omot, who decided to take the government's offer to leave. And there she was, waiting on this tarmac, seemingly completely unaware of where she was going and why she made that decision. Here's a bit of what she told me.

WARAGA OMOT: How come that they close the camp, and then they say it is a choice? Then we choose to go, and we get confused.

PERALTA: So what she's saying is that the government is telling them that they have a choice of whether to leave or not, but they're also telling them that the camp will be closed. One of the saddest places I went to was Ifo 2, which is one of the newer camps in Dadaab. So the Somalis who got to the camp in the '90s are being resettled to the U.S. and Canada and European countries, but those who got there in 2011 for the famine were just in limbo. As I walked through Ifo 2, an older man came up to me. He told me that he had not seen an official in weeks, and he was tired and hungry. And at this point, he just wanted to be sent back, even if that meant getting killed.

MCEVERS: So what was behind the government's order to shut down the camp in the first place?

PERALTA: Security - so Kenya has had a series of attacks in the past few years. The two big ones were an attack on a mall in Nairobi in 2013 and a really terrible attack on a university not far from the Dadaab in 2015. And that one left 147 people dead. The government says that the Islamist group al-Shabaab has infiltrated the camp, and so they can't take a risk by letting refugees in the country.

MCEVERS: That sounds like the debate happening here in the U.S. - I mean, these worries that refugees will become terrorists.

PERALTA: Yeah. No. It's a lot like it, actually. I called Gabriella Waaijman of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which does a lot of work at the camps there. And what she told me - she found another similarity here - is that the judiciary in both countries has been the last line of defense for refugees.

GABRIELLA WAAIJMAN: We understand the security concerns that countries have, but to demonize refugees - they're easy to demonize. Not many people speak out for them. So I'm very proud of the judiciary that they're actually willing to stand up for the rights of refugees because they might be voiceless, but they do have rights.

PERALTA: She also told me that in both cases, she believes that both countries are running afoul of their international commitments.

MCEVERS: So what happens now? And all these Somalis in the camp - will they be able to stay?

PERALTA: Kenya's high court decided that trying to close down Dadaab was, quote, "unfair and arbitrary" and it violated both international law and the constitutional rights of refugees. The government, however, says that they will appeal to the country's supreme court, but for now, Dadaab stays open.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi. Thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.