Refoulement and Security in East Africa

With the degenerative state of security and stability in Somalia, a country that ranks just behind Southern Sudan as one of the most fragile states on the Fragile State’s Index, human rights officials are condemning the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp by Kenyan authorities. Their criticism focuses on the repatriation of over 330,000 Somali refugees back to violently disputed terrain in Southern Somalia.  The Refugee Convention of 1951 specifically condemns and prohibits such action in Article 33. Prohibition of Expulsion or Return (‘Refoulement’), which states that:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality,membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

As Professor Hunter McGill stated in his interview in Episode 4, United Nations (UN) Conventions such as the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol are not considered to be binding laws in the international system, as countries will often rely on precedents of state sovereignty when the actions they take defy a convention. This feeds into the recurring argument of whether or not to give the UN sharpened ‘teeth’ in terms of enforcement. As many protracted refugee issues have shown, “The question of when, and on what basis, different actors consider it safe or appropriate for refugees’ exile to end is rooted both in different conceptions of ‘home’, and in varying assessments of individual, national and state interests. These lead in turn to different evaluations of ‘success’ of refugee return, and the policies of those who promote it.”[^1]

These varying assessments of national and state interest underline what may be contributing to the Dadaab decision. The official spokesman for Kenya’s Interior Ministry, Mwenda Njoka, refutes claims of unethical repatriation claiming that the government  “had made arrangements with the local government of Jubaland to resettle [the refugees] on 10,000 acres north of Kismayo” in southern Somalia, nearer the border with Kenya. This statement has come into conflict with public statements made by the Somali Ambassador to the United States, Ahmed Awad, who called the move “logistically impractical” and warned that such a move could threaten the relationship cultivated between Kenya and Somalia and undermines the goodwill sentiment towards Somalis.

Jubaland, the area in question, remains in contention between African Union (AU)/government controlled areas around Kismayo and along the border with Kenya and a predominant Al-Shabab presence extending north of Kismayo to Baidoa, el-Ade and along to Mogadishu, the capital. The AU was successful in forcing Al-Shabab out of the capital in August of 2011 and regaining control of Kismayo in September of 2012. One of the main questions of security is this,

“what reprisal of fate awaits if so many are sent back to a country with little infrastructure, few inroads to legitimate employment and a seemingly day-to-day struggle for survival among families and communities?”


With Somalia’s continuing degenerative state, the threat of recruitment among large numbers of young, able-bodied men with little access to sustained, continuous, legitimate means of income has many concerned. The current Somali government continues to rely heavily on the UN for backing in a power struggle with Al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group that maintains a geographical stronghold in much of Somalia’s South through the use of anti-state violence and terrorism. The group derives much of its support from typically agrarian ethnic minorities in the South, which is approximately one third of the country and borders Kenya.

Source: BBC News

Compounding the issue is the economic vulnerability of refugees, where a lack of basic rights and resources has pushed desperate people to take desperate measures for survival- an option of which may be to join the party or group who controls a given territory and can provide some sense of day-to-day stability in a family’s life. Security officials and the President of Kenya have highlighted that the economic vulnerability of refugees has made the Dadaab Refugee Camp an efficient Al Shabaab recruiting center, which has been cited as both inflammatory language used to repatriate Somali refugees, as well as another reason why repatriation could be dangerous for stability and safety in Somalia.

The United Nations and the Somali government worry that the state’s capacity to provide for its repatriated citizens is beyond its current capacity. In addition, Kenya’s actions may fuel Al-Shabab’s ability to recruit vulnerable citizens and shore up the organization’s geographical stronghold in Somalia, which would further destabilize the country and protract violence. Their position is that Al-Shabab is not just a Somali problem; it is increasingly an Eastern African problem. It retains a prevalent network across Eastern Africa, including a notable presence in Kenya. Looking forward, if Al-Shabab were able to recruit more militants and support, East Africa could see an uptick in the organization’s terrorist activity.

No matter how it is dissected, facilitating the repatriation of Somalis from Dadaab into Jubaland carries the risk that refugees will once again become threatened by the same power struggle that drove them out of their homes years ago. Whether or not these citizens will radicalize is indeterminable, but not improbable given the impossible decision they may be left with. If, as Professor McGill stated, the only way to resolve protracted refugee issues is to create state stability through political collaboration and action, the deteriorating relationship between the UN-backed Somali government and Kenya over this issue only threatens to protract the refugee crisis.  The international community must ask whether or not it is acceptable to protract refugeeism into Jubaland, pushing refugees into greater depths of insecurity and vulnerability – what this writer interprets as fodder in the name of state sovereignty and guise of regional security by isolating Somalia and its citizens behind borders. Trouble comes in three’s.

[^1]: Black, Richard, Conceptions of ‘home’ and the political geography of refugee repatriation: between assumption and contested reality in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Applied Geography, Volume 22, Issue 2, April 2002, Pages 123-138, ISSN 0143-6228,


This post is a follow-up to Episode 4: Dadaab and the 21st Century Refugee Crisis.

Image courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO

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