Kenya might expel refugees to their home countries

In March, the Kenyan government issued an ultimatum to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): Create a plan to close two camps that host more than 430,000 refugees, or we will forcibly expel them to their home countries immediately. However, refugees say forced repatriation is not a humane option.

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Kenya might expel refugees to their home countries

What does the Kenyan public think, and what factors might boost public support for keeping camps open and integrating refugees into Kenya? About half of Kenya’s refugees are Somalis living in Dadaab refugee camp. They have fled a three-decade civil conflict between the Somali government and many rebel organizations, including the al-Shabaab militant group. Some refugee families have now been in Dadaab for multiple generations.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta alleges that Dadaab’s refugees are a security threat. He and other government officials claim that al-Shabaab recruits from the camp. These allegations play on fears that the militant group, which has staged several attacks in Kenya over the past decade, will continue to target Kenyan citizens in retaliation for Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia.

Closing the camps is controversial

All stakeholders agree that conditions in the camps are unacceptable. However, they disagree about what should be done.

In response to the ultimatum, UNHCR worked with the Kenyan government to establish a June 2022 deadline for closing Dadaab, as well as Kakuma, a second camp hosting mostly South Sudanese refugees. The plan envisions that most inhabitants will be voluntarily repatriated to their home countries (or perhaps third-party countries). Some nationals of East African Community member countries (which does not include Somalia) may be offered residency in Kenya.

This plan is controversial. Experts question whether voluntary repatriation is feasible. Prior attempts saw limited success because many refugees fear returning to poverty and insecurity in Somalia. Some who returned to Somalia became victims of physical and sexual violence and subsequently fled back to Dadaab. Analysts also caution that repatriation could backfire, making newly returned refugees more vulnerable to recruitment by al-Shabaab. Finally, prior attempts to close the camps have worsened the vulnerability of Kenya’s refugees, increasing violence, extortion and rape by police and vigilante mobs in the region. Renewed uncertainty about the future of the camps has already led to health and economic problems among the refugees, according to organizations working there.

Advocacy organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch are calling on the Kenyan government to keep the camps open and integrate refugees in Kenya.

What does the Kenyan public think? While public opinion is mixed, many citizens hold negative views of Somali refugees and support measures to expel them.

However, our research shows that hearing the experiences and perspectives of members of the Somali community in Kenya leads to increased support for keeping the camps open and granting citizenship rights that pave the way for integration into Kenya.

As refugee numbers rise, many countries want to shut them out for security concerns

Here’s how we did our research

We started by examining the content of Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, during 2017. More than 75 percent of the articles that mentioned Somalis were negative, focusing on violence and conflict. Perspectives from Somalis — refugees and longtime citizens of Kenya — were almost completely absent. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee, this type of common media portrayal fuels negative stereotypes of Somalis as supporters of Islamist terrorism.

We sought to learn whether hearing personal narratives from Somalis in Kenya could counter negative stereotypes and boost support for more human policies. Disseminating such narratives over mass or social media is a strategy advocacy organizations worldwide use to combat negative portrayals of marginalized communities like refugees and immigrants. Could this strategy work in Kenya?

To record personal narratives, we collaborated with leaders from Eastleighwood, a Somali advocacy group in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. We then conducted a household survey in Nairobi. More than 1,100 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In one group, participants heard a recording from a Somali refugee describing how his family escaped conflict in Somalia and expressing gratitude for safe haven in Dadaab. A second group heard a recording from an ethnic Somali citizen of Kenya (Somalis make up about 6 percent of Kenya’s population) calling for unity between Kenyan Somalis (most of whom are Muslim) and other Kenyans (mostly Christian) against al-Shabaab. A third group, the control group, heard no narrative.

Personal narratives boost positive attitudes

Both narratives increased support for keeping the Dadaab refugee camp open and granting citizenship rights to a larger number of refugees. Hearing the Somali refugee and Somali citizen narratives boosted support for keeping Dadaab open to 61 and 55 percent, relative to 45 percent in the control group. The narratives also boosted attitudes regarding the number of refugees who should be granted citizenship status in Kenya — to 36 percent and 37 percent, relative to 30 percent in the control group.

We also examined whether the narratives simply increase support among those who already held favorable views of Somalis. We found that the narratives generally produced positive effects among both those who were positively and negatively predisposed toward Somalis. For example, the refugee narrative increased support for keeping Dadaab open among those who perceived Somalis as a security threat and those who did not.

What do these results tell us?

Our research suggests that the vilification of refugees by public officials and media outlets fosters negative public perceptions, discrimination and violence toward refugees. However, our research also shows that creating opportunities to learn about refugees’ experiences and perspectives can be a useful strategy for increasing support for policies aimed at benefiting vulnerable populations fleeing violence and insecurity in their home countries.

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