Refugees shouldn’t be used as political currency

It’s not just Trump facing the heavy hand of the law; Uhuru Kenyatta is the latest leader to have his refugee-bashing ambitions stopped dead in their tracks by legal obstruction. The recent ruling of a “so-called judge” in the USA to lift Trump’s notorious travel ban, along with Justice Mativo’s decision to halt the the closure of Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee camp hosting asylum seekers mainly from Somalia, were swift and decisive. Prema facie this makes it seem as though leaders like Kenyatta and Trump’s controversial calls to close Dabaab and ban Syrian refugees were irrational and ill-informed. But is this really the case?

Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya

Both men claimed that their plans would protect civilians from the threat of violence. Yet, from the 1998 US embassy bombing to Westgate in 2013, there is no evidence of a link between Dadaab and any major terrorist attacks in Kenya. Indeed, ordinary Kenyans are at far more risk of dying on the roads, at the hands of drunken motorists or because of unsafe public transport. Equally, Trump’s claims that refugees pose a threat to national security in the US has been publically ridiculed by some, many of whom draw attention instead to the more widespread problem of gun violence perpetrated by US citizens year on year. Clearly the men aren’t playing a numbers game. In fact, a closer look at both Kenyatta’s and Trump’s rhetoric suggest well-calculated moves for economic and political survival.

Personally, I am inclined to believe that both leaders knew that their promises were next-to impossible to deliver by law; but doing trying to do it anyway offered some leverage to both men, in different ways. For Kenya, threatening to shut Dadaab was a hefty economic bargaining chip and with elections looming in the summer, Kenyatta opted to cash it in. Luckily enough, the bluff worked both politically and economically.

It’s not widely advertised that Kenya doesn’t contribute a penny towards maintaining Dadaab; the costs are all met by the UN and UNHCR. Within Kenya, there is a long history of grievance between the state and its Somali population. From the shifta wars of the 70s to Kenya’s present-day involvement in AMISOM, Somali residents have often felt the squeeze of political ambitions in Kenya and Somali and have frequently been lambasted in national media. It an easy (and lazy) move for Kenyatta to play on lingering sentiments and be seen as taking action on a ‘problem’ by opting to close Dadaab and repatriate Somali refugees. It is a reliable way to win over some dissatisfied voters and, as Trump showed, if the efforts don’t work out, it’s just as easy to blame the problem on so-called judges!

Economically, Kenya is learning very quickly from recent changes in European Union Common Asylum Policy, which has abandoned funding quotas to pour money into frontline countries like Greece and Italy, who are receiving record numbers of asylum seekers. Furthermore, the EU-Turkey deal which enabled Greece to return fleeing refugees via Turkey, has provided Kenya with a lesson in how to use refugees as political bargaining chips: “if you go any further, these border gates will be opened” the Turkish President once warned the EU, while negotiating Turkey’s economic interests in the Union.

Kenya used similar tactics following the Westgate attack and the attack on Garrisa University in 2015. By promising to secure Dadaab, Kenya secured $45m of aid on approval of former US Secretary of State John Kerry. There appears to be a lucrative market for hosting refugees! What’s more, if the price of hosting refugees goes up in the West as it is exploited by Turkey and others, Kenya is sure to catch on to the game. The rhetoric surrounding the Dadaab closure should be treated with caution, although frustratingly, Matvivo’s ruling plays into the hands of the government, who may never have been intending to close the camp.

Both Trump and the Kenyan government opted to promise legal impossibilities because it is a safe and easy tactic. For Trump, it works a long term strategy. When elections roll around in four years and the electorate starts asking why he has been unable to deliver on his ridiculous promises, the answer is simple: because of the intervention of “so-called judges” like Robart. It also plays nicely into Trump’s anti-establishment trope if ‘The Establishment’ is seen to be thwarting his policies. For Kenya, apart from the move being a calculated plot to hike the prices of hosting refugees, scapegoating refugees and Kenyans of Somali origin has always provided electoral leverage.

For example, Kenyatta can be seen as taking a tough stance on terrorism at home if the link between Somalia and terrorism is emphasised- the closure of Dadaab then becomes a national security issue. Kenyatta is aware of Kenya’s position as a refugee-hosting country that is depended on by the international community and, with elections around the corner and no clear winner in sight, by being seen to backtrack on his plan to close the camp can keep international observers sweet and avoid international pressure approaching elections. Institutions such as the EU would rather refugees remained in Dadaab than make the journey to cross the Mediterranean- whien looked at like this, the threat to close the camp is simply a calculated sales pitch.

Politicians are realising that that voters are increasingly looking for certainty to the cause of their problems, whether to help them get out poverty in developing countries, or reclaim a sense of stability in the West. Blaming outsiders for such problems is comforting, because it makes the source of them seem simple and easy to be rid of. History shows that the defenceless make an easy target; stretching back to medieval Europe when witch-hunts blamed simple illnesses on elderly widowed women, humans have an unpleasant habit of pointing the finger at vulnerable people in times of crisis.

And indeed, refugees are vulnerable: access to health, work and education is limited; language and cultural barriers create problems, and geographical isolation in camps are all factors that weaken asylum seekers’ security in their host countries This quest for certainty and, ultimately, for votes, will take its toll on refugees as the most defenceless in society. It is important to realise that ‘problems’ we are being presented with are often, in fact, distractions and are being used as mere leverage for political and economic causes.

Eric Mugaju is a recent graduate of LSE MSc Social Policy and is a Ugandan writer and blogger. He studied Law and Development at SOAS, University of London. His interests include legal issues in Africa and political economy. You can follow him on Twitter @e-mugaju



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