War, Refugees and International Law

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I have never visited Dadaab refugee camp.

But I have worked with people who work there, and with aid organisations who worked to provide services and opportunities to the 350,000 people effectively trapped in the Kenyan camp between war in their home states (in most cases, Somalia) and a largely indifferent international community.

And wherever you work, in refugee and internally-displaced people’s* camps all over the world, those who have been – to live, work, or observe – remind those of us who have not that at Dadaab, the largest refugee camp anywhere in the world, the international community united to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

*IDP camps are those which host people who have been forced from their homes, but have not had to leave their country. Refugees must by definition have been forced from their country of residence.

If it can be done there, with the largest population of refugees anywhere in the world, the implication is that it can be done elsewhere too.

But on 6 May, the Kenyan government announced plans to close not only Dadaab, but also Kakuma, Kenya’s second largest refugee camp which hosts 179,000 people, most of them from South Sudan, stating that ‘the hosting of refugees has to come to an end.’

The announcement came just one week after the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta began campaigning for elections scheduled for next year, but was described by Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa as ‘reckless… an abdication of (Kenya’s) duty to protect the vulnerable.’

There are, of course, a number of problems with the proposal from a simple logistic perspective: the closure of two refugee camps without safe places for the men, women and children living there to live in instead is – correctly – in direct breach of international law, and in any case, it is almost impossible to imagine how Kenya proposes to forcibly deport almost 530,000 people into war zones in Somalia and South Sudan.

But Kenyatta’s government has disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, ordering its staff not to go to work at the camps, and leaving international aid organisations to attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’ and provide for people’s ongoing and urgent needs.

Kenyatta’s main motivation for this appears to be to continue ‘his’ campaign against al-Shabaab, the Somalian al-Qaeda-afilliated* terror group.

In that, he and Kenya as a state do deserve some sympathy. Al-Shabaab has carried out a series of atrocities in Kenya, including in September 2013 the attack on the Westgate Mall, Nairobi, which killed 67 people and injured at least 175 more, and the April 2015 attack on Garissa University College, in which gunmen killed 148 people and injured at least 79 more.

*Al-Shabaab itself, whose name translates from Arabic as ‘youth’ has, since early in 2015, been almost overrun by internal chaos, as some of its members attempt to alter its alignment to associate with IS rather than Al-Qaeda. Despite a series of such attempts, the group’s official stance remains that it is part of the wider international Al-Qaeda terror organisation, and that IS supporters should leave.  

But to argue that either Dadaab or Kakuma are the source of al-Shabaab activity in Kenya is to ignore the fact that Kenya has a 435 mile border with Somalia, and a 535 mile border with Ethiopia, whose own extremely porous border with Somalia stretches more than 994 miles.

There is almost no evidence to suggest Al-Shabaab’s activity in Kenya comes from Dadaab, and in fact Kenyatta’s own government appears to have already accepted this, having chosen to start work in April 2015 on a wall designed to stretch the length of its border with Somalia (itself, like all such walls, a plan with more flaws than potential).

So even the Kenyan government recognises by implication that the plan to shut Dadaab and Kakuma (extremely few Somalians are living at the latter in any case) is an effective irrelevance in terms of terrorist attacks in Kenya, while no-one seriously believes Kenya could force their residents back to war-zones in which they would likely die.

Nor has Kenya been left ‘alone’ to help men, women and children stay alive: the international community at large has certainly done far too little to help, and this can and must change, but international aid organisations have been central to Dadaab and Kakuma’s operation.

And when the camps close – if they do – it is clear they neither can, nor will, return to Somalia or South Sudan, which are not safe places for them to live.

Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, close countries to the north and east, are each equally forbidding places to attempt to claim refuge, meaning that for many of the more than 500,000 people currently at Dadaab and Kakuma, Libya and Europe beyond it may appear to be not only the best, but perhaps the only option.

And this leads us to a reminder – that however far something may seem from our own door, the needs and wishes of people are not just a matter which should engage us all, but which must.

In several pieces on this site, I have noted the potential and actual mistakes made in relation to Libya, Syria, Turkey, the EU and the international refugee situation.

It is time to recognise that the situation is not restricted to these places, and that men, women and children everywhere deserve decent lives in safety and comfort. There is no such thing as ‘someone else’s problem’. Kenya’s mistake will be the world’s mistake, just as the EU, Russia and the US’ mistakes on Syria, Turkey and Libya are everyone’s mistakes.

If we treat people badly, they will of course react against that. They should. It is time we all – European, Middle Eastern, American, Asian and African, put the interests of people first.


Later this month, Istanbul will host the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. But MSF, one of the world’s most politically-active and outspoken aid organisations, has announced it will not attend.

The summit, organised by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA, will take place on 23 and 24 May, in the largest city in Turkey, the state with the world’s biggest population of refugees.

It is hoped that more than 80 states will be represented, along with aid and development organisations, private sector representatives and people who have experienced disaster.

But MSF has described the summit as ‘a fig-leaf of good intentions’.

The organisation, which works to provide vital medical aid and assistance in many of the world’s most dangerous regions, has objected to the summit’s focus, which it says pays too little attention to the responsibilities of nation states to prevent and avoid life-wrecking disasters.

Under some circumstances, this might be regarded as little more than a squabble in a part of the global economy in which most people are never involved.

But MSF’s point goes rather deeper than that. Because across the world, increasing numbers of aid organisations are questioning why they – rather than governments who wage foreign wars – are charged with the life-saving and life-improving duties those wars necessitate.

This is not to say that aid organisations do not want to help people, or to improve people’s lives – the opposite is the case.

But discussion within aid organisations increasingly focuses on the idea that some states, in starting and participating in wars (and in some cases in leaving states to fend for themselves when they end) are guilty of ‘playing the system’; effectively using aid organisations who rely on international donations to clean up the disasters many of those states have themselves created – or as in the case of people fleeing war and terror, expecting those organisations to provide care nation states are required by international law to provide.

Of course it is to be helped that the Summit itself succeeds in gaining binding commitments to save and improve lives all over the world, but MSF is not alone in questioning a system in which – some believe – donations are funding non-governmental organisations to clear up messes caused by governments, and which governments have a legal obligation to deal with themselves, or even better, not to cause in the first place.


Also in Turkey, on 5 May, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, leader of the state’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), resigned from his position after 20 months in office.

In his statement he said: ‘I will not accept any speculation concerning my relationship with President Erdoğan. We have always stood shoulder to shoulder,’ but added: ‘After consultations with the president I decided that it would be more appropriate for the unity of [the AKP] to change the chairman.’

The news has been greeted with dismay by most commentators outside of Turkey, who believe the reason for Davutoglu’s resignation was that he had consistently challenged the state’s President Recep Erdogan on policy – and in fact that he was one of the few politicians remaining in the AKP who was willing and capable of so doing.

In truth, Davutoglu’s appointment was – despite his willingness to challenge Erdogan on policy – a safe bet for the Turkish President: Davutoglu is unpopular within the AKP, and Turkey’s political system is so divided that extremely few outside the party’s normal supporter base would back him if there were a non-AKP option. Davutoglu was never likely to cause more than irritation to Erdogan.

But he has proven to be that irritation, with disagreements over Turkey’s relationship with the EU among many others.

Even that may prove of little significance, however, compared to the fact that Davutoglu – as one of the only men with the capacity to influence his President’s policies – was almost a sole voice in favour of reopening peace negotiations with the Kurds in Turkey’s South East.

This site contains many analyses of how Turkey’s latest conflict with its Kurdish population began, and how both sides must move to end it, but perhaps even this has made too little of the situation as it stands in Turkey.

In the Kurdish regions – largely in the state’s south-east – Turkey is currently engaged in a civil war. It is not a ‘war’ which is noticed in the rest of the state (though terrorist attacks including car bombings have been launched by Kurdish groups in Ankara), but in the south and east there are troops and gun-carrying rebels on the streets.

Unlike Davutoglu, Erdogan’s instinct is that Turkey must ‘win’ this war. But this aim – achievable only with difficulty at the best of times – is complicated by the fact that Turkey is currently engaged in a war in Syria, in which Kurdish forces in the country’s north are fighting IS militias who also regularly attack Turkey, and that Turkey is hosting more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees, part of the world’s largest refugee population.

Equally, it is far from clear what ‘victory’ would look like in Turkey. As noted elsewhere on this site, the Kurds and Turkish politicians had been engaged in a peace process which had seen arms laid down on both sides and led to Kurdish politicians taking places in the Turkish parliament.

But Erdogan should not be fooled into thinking that this situation will easily return – especially not if Turkish troops crush Kurdish rebels. The peace process was an outbreak of moderation on both sides. Its failure has not only turned many on both sides away from moderation, but the longer the war continues, the more people are likely to be radicalised and forced even further apart.

It is hard to see a ‘defeated’ Kurdish region re-entering Turkish life with any enthusiasm or speed.

In this context, the loss of Davutoglu may prove to be a disaster for Turkey, and for the wider region, prolonging a lopsided, but almost unwinnable and ultimately likely futile conflict, causing and spreading misery within Turkey and outside of its borders, as well as weakening Turkish, Kurdish and by extension Syrian resistance to IS.

Erdogan’s war against the Turkish Kurds is not good for Turkey or for the wider region. Even if the human suffering it is causing were not enough, that is why Erdogan losing a potential proponent of negotiation and peace is a very serious concern.

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