Since the attack on Garissa University College in April, a climate of fear has existed in Dadaab refugee camp, home to approximately 350,000 refugees most of whom are Somali. 147 people were killed in this religiously-motivated attack committed by Islamist group al-Shabaab. In response, the Kenyan government quickly issued threats to forcibly relocated Dadaab’s refugees to Somalia within just 3 months. This would have been both logistically impossible and inhumane, given the endangerment of many people – often born and raised in the camp – in insecure regions of Somalia. The Kenyan government later became more lenient on this stance, encouraging voluntary return with the cooperation of international agencies but without the threat of a forced expulsion.
The dynamics between the Kenyan state, al-Shabaab, and the scapegoating of 350,000 refugees raises major questions regarding African responses to terrorism, our ideas of colonialism, and desire to place blame the ‘other.’
First, it is significant that the Kenyan government was willing to endanger 350,000 refugees due to the actions of an Islamist group. Perhaps most tellingly, the deputy president William Ruto said that “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa… We must secure this country at whatever cost.” This gives no regard to the lives and futures of thousands of young refugees who grew up in the Dadaab camps and know no other life. While we must think outside of camps as a de facto response to refugee crises, refugees currently in Dadaab deserve stable, long-term solutions and support – not to be scapegoated and conflated with terrorists simply due to their ethnicity and religion.
Both al-Shabaab militants and Kenyan nationalists referred to “colonialism” in some capacity in their actions and reactions. Al-Shabaab claimed that their attack was justified because they were on “Muslim land colonized by non-Muslims,” despite that Islam has its own oppressive and colonizing history in Africa prior to European invasions. Kenyan President Kenyatta also accused Western states of perpetuating colonialism when many, including the UK, issued travel warnings to Kenya after the Garissa attack. So which religion(s) are colonial? Which (neo-) colonial powers are the most imminent threats?
Although there are many possibilities, I have no solid answers as to why refugees in Dadaab are scapegoated for the growth of violent Islamism and terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab. There are often tensions between refugee and host communities, furthered by government policies, ethnic/linguistic differences, and religion. Beyond the refugee-specific question, there are already issues of xenophobia and religious tensions in many African contexts. Dadaab is blamed as being a breeding ground or safe haven for terrorist propagation, and it is hard to determine the extent to which this might be true or whether it is another example of conveniently placing blame on a vulnerable population.
Instead, how can we find and address root causes of religious extremism which seems to be continually manifesting on the continent? How can security issues be addressed, without promoting militarism and over-policing of refugee camps and other areas, such as slums? Broadly, how are refugee crises being addressed by African states? What do we see as our role in the humanitarian response to forced displacement?
These are not simply theoretical questions – the answers we come up with, or lack thereof, impact the lives of millions of refugees and other persons of concern across the continent. At the same time as security is increasing at Dadaab and fears increase, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is cutting food rations by 30% due to funding shortages. In response to threats of violence in the region, Médecins Sans Frontières – the only provider of medical care in Dagahaley camp at Dadaab – evacuated their staff and closed health posts. In response to this crisis situation, voices of advocacy from African citizens on behalf of refugees are needed in order to ensure that lives are not further endangered due to xenophobia and misplaced blame.