Early this morning, Somali friends in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp that’s home to more than 300,000 people, were celebrating the selection of Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” as the new president of Somalia. Residents in Dadaab have been waiting years, and in some cases decades, for Somalia to be safe enough for them to return home, and many appear to see Farmajo’s election as an encouraging sign.
With the election victory still fresh on people’s minds, news came that Kenya’s High Court had passed an important ruling, which will help protect the rights of Somali refugees in Kenya. It ruled that recent attempts by the Kenyan government to repatriate Somali refugees back home, close Dadaab camp, and disband its Department of Refugee Affairs, are unconstitutional.
The case was brought in 2016 by two Kenyan rights organizations, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Kituo Cha Sheria, and supported by Amnesty International. Today, Judge Mativo ruled that plans to close Dadaab and send residents home are illegal because they discriminate against Somali refugees and violate the principle of nonrefoulement, which forbids the forced returns of refugees.
Dadaab residents have already been through months of anxiety. They’ve had the possible camp closure hanging over their heads, and increasingly restricted asylum options – in no way helped by the recent suspension of refugee resettlement by the United States. So the court’s decision may offer them a moment of respite, and the sense that they may still have a choice other than being sent back to a country which remains insecure and drought-ridden.
The Kenyan government has already said that it plans to appeal the decision. It might also just ignore the ruling – and not for the first time. In July 2013, the High Court ruled unconstitutional a government directive ordering all refugees in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities to move into the Dadaab and Kakuma camps. But one year later, the government basically re-issued the same directive.
For Dadaab refugees’ flicker of hope to become a reality, the Kenyan government should not appeal the decision, but rather move quickly to implement it. It should ensure that Somalis throughout Kenya have access to fair, transparent, and effective asylum procedures. And it should publicly tell the many Somalis in Kenya who still fear persecution, violence, or hunger back home that they are welcome to stay in Dadaab.