More than half are Somalis living in the sprawling Dadaab complex, the world’s largest for refugees and the subject of what have been intense diplomatic talks between Kenyan officials threatening to close the camp and Americans insisting such action would violate international law.
Kerry said he received assurances Monday from Kenya’s once-shunned president, Uhuru Kenyatta, that the camp would stay open while an international plan is devised to make Somalia safe enough for its citizens to return. He said he came away from the discussions with a deeper appreciation for the refugee burden Kenya carries.
The talks on refugees were part of a whirlwind day for the secretary of state that included commemorating the victims of Kenya’s past and more recent terror attacks, and holding extensive discussions with Kenyatta and other officials on combatting Al-Shabab extremists operating out of Somalia. His trip sets the stage for President Barack Obama’s visit this summer.
Kerry said he needed to make no explicit demand regarding Dadaab, even though Deputy President William Ruto said last month the camp would close before August if the UN High Commissioner for Refugees didn’t relocate the refugees to Somalia, likening his government’s anti-terror efforts to those of the US after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The massacre last month at Garissa University College killed 148 people, mainly students. Other recent attacks in Kenya include one on the Westgate shopping mall in 2013, where 67 people were killed by an Al-Shabab network that has been severely hampered by African military efforts and US drone strikes in Somalia, but is expanding its activities elsewhere.
Kenyan officials have regularly claimed Dadaab is a breeding ground for extremist attacks. But the US has seen no evidence linking Dadaab to any of Al-Shabab’s recent atrocities, according to a senior State Department official.
The US would reconsider its financial support if the camp is shut down or if Somalis are forcibly returned home, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on Kerry’s private diplomatic discussions and demanded anonymity. The US has provided Kenya hundreds of millions of dollars in counterterrorism and refugee assistance in recent years.
Kenya’s burden is only a piece of a larger refugee challenge that has grown more acute with fighting in South Sudan — whose leaders Kerry publicly lambasted Monday — and more recently across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
Yemen has long suffered from desperate poverty, political dysfunction and Al-Qaeda’s most lethal branch. It has become more unstable in recent months as Iran-backed Shiite rebels seized much of the country, chasing Yemen’s internationally recognized president into exile and prompting a military intervention of Sunni Arab governments.
Since the bombing campaign began in late March, 3,500 people have fled Yemen for the northern Somali regions of Somaliland and Puntland. These include Yemenis and some of the estimated 1 million Somali refugees and migrants residing in that country, according to UN and International Organization for Migration figures.
Some 1,000 people have reached neighboring Djibouti, which is dealing with its own refugee strain. Seven thousand more have transited through the country, including American citizens, and Kerry plans to visit Djibouti Wednesday.
The crisis could get drastically worse. Aid agencies are undertaking contingency planning for a prolonged conflict that could prompt 100,000 people to flee to Somalia and 30,000 to Djibouti this year. It’s unclear how Somalia, in particular, would be able to handle such an influx amid persistent fighting throughout much of its territory.
The UN estimates 16 million people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance.
Earlier Monday, Kerry laid a wreath for the victims of the deadly 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya. The twin Al-Qaeda embassy attacks in Nairobi and the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam killed 224 people.
Kerry’s talks with Kenyatta were the most extensive talks since the International Criminal Court dropped charges of crimes against humanity against the Kenyan leader in December. Those were linked to violence that killed hundreds of people after Kenya’s contested 2007 presidential election.
Nevertheless, the US believes Kenyatta should do more to improve human rights, from addressing the post-election killings to stamping out continued incidents of police violence and pressure against journalists, activists and political opponents.