More than 300,00 Somali refugees reside in a camp in Dadaab, Kenya. File photo UPI/Shutterstock/hikrcn
NAIROBI, Kenya, May 9 (UPI) -- Kenya announced plans to close all refugee camps -- a move that will displace more than 600,000 people -- citing "very heavy" economic, security and environmental issues.
The closures, which were lambasted by human rights groups, mean Somali asylum seekers would be forced to return to the situation they fled.
The government plans include closing Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world with 300,00 people along the Kenya-Somalia border.
Karanja Kibicho, Kenya's secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said Friday his country's leaders are concerned about the influence of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
"Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, has decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end," he said.
It's not clear when the camps will close.
Human rights groups angrily responded to the decision.
Human Rights Watch says targeting Somali refugees and ethnic Somalis is "contrary to principles it has pledged to respect."
And terrorist fears are unjustified, the group says.
"Despite the Kenyan government's frequent statements that Somali refugees in Kenya are responsible for Kenya's insecurity, officials have not provided credible evidence linking Somali refugees to any terrorist attacks in Kenya," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch.
But the Somalia-based Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab did claim responsibility for the worst terrorist attack in Kenya in the last decade: the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi that killed 67 people and wounded more than 175 others. A spokesman for al-Shabaab had said that the attack was retaliation for Kenyan troops taking part in a military campaign in Somalia.
Still, Amnesty International called the decision to close the refugee camps "reckless."
The decision "is an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk," said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. "It could lead to the involuntary return of thousands of refugees to Somalia and other countries of origin, where their lives may still be in danger. This would be in violation of Kenya's obligations under international law."
Kibicho said he understands the consequences of the decision.
"The government of Kenya acknowledges that the decision will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees and therefore the international community must collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action," he said.
The Orange Democratic Movement warned against closing the camps. In a statement, the opposition party called the threats juvenile and escapist. It said the move cannot be "morally, politically or economically right."
The party said closing the camps "does not make any sense, as it does not help solve the underlying causes."