efe-epaNairobi

The Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged Kenya not to close a vast refugee camp that houses hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.

The Kenyan government told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international organization's leading agency for refugee protection, that it was planning to shut the Dadaab camp, near the Somali-Kenyan border, within six months for security reasons, according to a document leaked to the press on Feb. 12.

"Kenya should abandon plans to close the camp and instead uphold its commitment to protect refugees it has hosted for three decades," said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"The authorities should ensure that any refugee returns are voluntary, humane, and based on reliable information about the security situation in Somalia," Namwaya added.

The leaked document explained that the UNHCR helped the Kenyan authorities return 82,840 refugees to Somalia under a voluntary repatriation program between Dec. 2014 and the end of 2018, the number of transferred refugees went from 33,792 in 2016 and 35,409 in 2017 to only 7,543 in 2018.

It is not the first time that Kenya has tried to close Dadaab, which is considered one of the world's biggest refugee camps.

In May 2016, Kenya sought to shut the site over security reasons and insufficient support from the international community.

The Interior Ministry's principal secretary Eng Karanja Kibicho also said at the time that the Department of Refugee Affairs would be dissolved, leaving some 12,000 asylum seekers undocumented.

However, the country's Supreme Court ruled the closure would have been unconstitutional and would have violated Kenya's international obligations.

Food, water and other services were cut off in Dadaab, forcing many refugees to leave, according to a report by Amnesty International.

"Many Somali refugees are themselves victims of violence, from which they fled to seek protection," Namwaya said.

"Forcing them to go back to face violence or persecution would be inhumane and a violation of Kenya's legal obligations," he added.

Dadaab, comprising of four camps, is hosting over 235,200 asylum seekers and refugees, according to the latest UNHCR data from Jan. 2018.

The camp was first established in 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and a civil war broke out in Somalia, which has been in a state of war and chaos ever since.

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