Closing Dadaab Or Moving the Misery?
Dadaab, a Kenyan camp near Somalia's border, is known as the world's largest refugee camp, but it is really operates as a city more than a temporary shelter, and if it were counted as such, it would be Kenya's third largest.
I remember being told on my first visit there in 2006 that the camp had reached its limit - Kenya could no longer accept the flood of refugees streaming in from neighbouring Somalia. Officials threatened to shut the border.
Then a brutal two-year war in Somalia broke out with Ethiopia, and Dadaab grew.
In 2008, camp organizers again told me this was it. The resources and land were just not available to expand. The border was "closed" officials said - but refugees still made it through.
And as Al Shabab began a reign of terror Somalia, and a 2011 famine devastated the south, thousands more found their way to the camps.
Nearly half a million Somali refugees now find shelter in Dadaab, Kakuma camp and in Kenya's capital of Nairobi. Two decades of conflict in Somalia means many Somali teenagers have known no other life - never stepping foot in their parent's homeland.
But on Sunday, for the first time in 20 years, an agreement was signed between Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR, which operates the camp, to begin the repatriation of refugees. It's a voluntary program, officials insist ("voluntary" is underlined in the UNHCR press release), and it is good news if the move is indicative of Somalia's recovery.
The impetus for the deal, however, is not Somalia's (relative) stability, but the September terrorist attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall. Fingers started pointed at Somali refugees before the four-day siege had ended. Many feared Kenya would use the attack as a way to finally close the camps.
On Monday, a Kenyan security official told The Associated Press that one of the Westgate attackers lived at Kakuma. A second security official investigating the attack told The AP that more than one attacker passed through Kakuma camp. The article also noted that the head of the UNHCR in Kenya, Raouf Mazou, said his organization has been co-operating with the Kenyan government on the Westgate investigation but said he was “not aware of any specific case and not the name that you mentioned.”
If one or more of the attackers spent time in Dadaab or Kakuma, it will not be surprising. Al Shabab has recruited in the camps for years, just as they have in Somalia and elsewhere, luring young men from seemingly hopeless lives with the romanticism of the jihad.
Dadaab should be closed - it's a dismal existence - but will the situation in Somalia be any better? While areas of Mogadishu are experiencing an unprecedented construction boom, towns in Somalia's south remain under Shabab influence. This summer, Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of Somalia after 22 years due to security concerns calling it a "painful," "heavy" and "unprecedented decision." (MSF is usually the first in, and the last out).
The Somali government is also struggling to resettle of Somalia's "internally displaced people" who have set up camps in the capital, where they fled due to the famine or fighting.
Kenya's parliament has used the Westgate attack to put Dadaab's closure back on the agenda. One official stressed closing Dadaab is a matter of security, describing the camps as a "nursery for terrorists."
But unless the repatriation is indeed voluntary as promised, and the support in Somalia ample enough to accept an influx of returning residents, moving refugees may just be shifting the misery.
And if so, Al Shabab would have greater ease recruiting their next generation.
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm