Spare a thought for children in camps

The current debate on the imminent closure of the Dadaab refugee camp prompts me to reflect on the plight of the immigrant youth seeking residency in Kenya.

The young refugee in Kenya is largely invisible and is subjected to the same harsh conditions as his/her parents. Much of the literature on young refugees around the world criticises government policy that treats young people as asylum seekers first, rather than young people in need, thus subjecting them to harsh immigration legislation.

The government tends to overlook the fact that all children in Kenya, whether they are refugees or not, are protected under the Children’s Act 2001. The Act provides for, among other things, the realisation of the rights of the child, the best interests of the child, non-discrimination, right to parental and health care, and protection from abuse, armed conflict, torture, and deprivation of liberty.

Kenya is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes provisions similar to those contained in its Children’s Act.

The 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, which forms the basis for the international law governing the granting of refugee status to people fleeing for their lives, also binds us because we are signatories.

The convention gives equal importance to the social rights of refugees within the country of asylum. These social rights include residence, education, employment, and housing.

As the government prepares to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp, it seems determined to disregard its international humanitarian obligations.

Indeed, it has become common practice in Kenya to create a “simple universal idea” of refugees and who they are. The result is stereotyping of refugees as potential terrorists, disregarding the fact that among them are children and youth who are doubly marginalised and in need of help, at least on humanitarian grounds.

In considering the challenges faced by young refugees, it is often forgotten that they are not a homogenous group but rather have a range of different needs, experiences, and expectations.

Young people entering Kenya may arrive with their parents, other relatives, or alone. Many may not only have to contend with being displaced but also the realisation that their parents are helpless and may be unable to attend to them adequately due to their own emotional turmoil and traumatic experiences.

The toll that refugee status takes on the mental, social, and physical wellbeing of a young person is exacting. To throw such people back to their countries of origin in the name of enhancing our own security may be unhelpful because the majority hardly dabble in crime.


Only a few engage in any form of criminal activities. To close entire camps for security reasons is simplistic and callous. In any case, current evidence suggests that all youth, including Kenyans, face a huge risk of radicalisation into forms of violent extremism.

It may be more productive to stem the tide of radicalisation instead of resorting to the desperation of closing down refugee camps.

Closing down the camps would also be counterproductive because many refugees may exploit the loopholes of corruption to melt into the general population and therefore go beyond government surveillance. There is no way of knowing what such refugees can then do. They may become low-hanging fruit for the radical elements who may recruit them into terrorist and other unwanted networks.

To put it differently, expelling refugees from Kenya in the name of security, or even to spite the apparently unhelpful international community, is to give the refugees a grievance against a country that shall have turned against them when they needed us most. It is bad for our international image and for our future.

It deprives us of a chance to demonstrate that we are humane, that we have certain enduring values that make us leaders in the region. To do otherwise is to cede our leadership role in the region and offend the very foundations of African hospitality.

There may be legal and political arguments for closing the refugee camps. But again, there are also legal and political reasons for retaining them.

Among them are the vulnerable children and youth who need protection and a chance to live their lives in a dignified, humane environment.

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