Kenya camp closure must be humane, says UN refugee chief

Part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp (AFP Photo/Tony Karumba)
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Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya's planned closure later this year of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, must not result in people being forcibly returned to war-torn Somalia, the UN's refugee chief warned Monday.

"Repatriation, when it happens, must be in a humane, dignified manner, in line with international principles," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in Nairobi after a five-day visit to Kenya and Somalia.

Kenya has vowed to send back 350,000 Somali refugees living in Dadaab in north-east Kenya by November, insisting the camp is a security threat and a drain on national resources.

Nairobi has taken a hardline position, describing Dadaab as a terrorist training ground for Shabaab Islamists, and has publicly and repeatedly said all the Somali refugees would be removed from the country by the end of the year.

But Grandi -- who met with President Uhuru Kenyatta on Sunday -- said there was room for flexibility.

"The time frame of a few months is very short. I'm sure it will be longer than November, how long I don't know," Grandi said. "I hope there will not be a scenario of coercion and forced return."

Just 14,000 refugees have taken up the offer of voluntary return since the programme began in December 2014, but Grandi said "tens of thousands" more had returned "spontaneously", meaning without UN assistance.

- 'Arrests, detention and harassment' -

Grandi said the planned returns would not be conducted unilaterally by Kenya, but in discussion with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Somali government, and would require financial support from foreign donors to improve conditions in war-torn Somalia and provide a return package of food and money to those who go home.

The vast majority of residents of the sprawling Dadaab complex of camps close to the Kenya-Somalia border fled Somalia's more than two-decades long conflict. Many remain fearful of returning to a country where insecurity remains rife and life tough.

Grandi said that while Kenya's government sees Dadaab and its Somalis as "a situation that has to end as soon as possible" it will remain a host for asylum-seekers from other conflict-hit countries, such as South Sudan.

"The current discussion only concerns Dadaab," Grandi said.

Charities and the UN have voiced dismay at the closure plan, while rights groups have warned that forcibly repatriating refugees would break international law.

On Monday rights group Amnesty International said it "continues to receive reports of arrests, detention and harassment of refugees by the police" since the closure plans were announced last month.

The human rights group called for "concrete action to be taken to ensure continued protection for thousands of refugees at risk of forcible return."