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Kenya Threatens Again To Close Dadaab, World's Largest Refugee Camp


The fate of more than a quarter million Somali refugees hangs on an act of diplomacy. Secretary of State John Kerry is mediating talks between Kenya and the United Nations. Kerry wants to cool down Kenya's threats to close the world's largest refugee camp. It's known as Dadaab. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: With every new terrorist attack in Kenya, there's another call to close Dadaab. The 23-year-old refugee camp is more like a small city than a tented village. More than 300,000 Somali refugees call it home. But last month, Somali al-Shabab militants attacked a Kenyan university and killed 148 people. And even though none of the attackers were apparently from Dadaab, anti-Somali refugee sentiments swept the Kenyan political scene. In a noisy cafeteria in Kenya's Parliament, I met lawmaker Asman Kamama. He's chair of a parliamentary security committee supporting the camp's closure within three months.

ASMAN KAMAMA: Somali is a very complicated society. You know, with our liberal constitution, with our liberal way of life, they can easily penetrate our society and cause a lot of harm.

WARNER: That same Kenyan constitution makes closure of the camp illegal. It enshrines various international treaties that protect the rights of refugees not to be forced to return to their home country against their will.

KAMAMA: I know it's a constitutional issue, but sometimes, the government can take unconventional decision because the war that we're facing is also unconventional.

WARNER: It's this rhetoric of wartime exceptionalism that has the United Nations and Kenyan-Somalis so worried. Ahmed Mohammed is a Somali security professional based in Nairobi. He fears that though actual camp closure is unlikely, the xenophobic rhetoric will drive a wedge between Kenyans and Somalis that militant groups can exploit.

AHMED MOHAMED: It will exacerbate the very thing that the Kenyan government and the Somali government, the Somali community, are afraid of, which is radicalization.

WARNER: Today, Secretary of State John Kerry will urge the Kenyan president to publicly return to an agreement hammered out with the U.N. in 2013. That came after an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall also claimed by al-Shabab militants. That U.N. agreement puts incentives in place to encourage Somali refugees to voluntarily head home, with an emphasis on voluntarily.

But Kerry will also be trying to stem a potential political pickle. President Obama is due to visit Kenya in late July, just about the time that Kenya promises to be pushing Somali refugees back over the border into a war zone. I point out this awkward timing to the parliamentarian Asman Kamama, and he seemed at first to back off the three-month deadline. Obama is, after all, a revered figure here.

KAMAMA: I know we can never afford to embarrass President Obama, who is also our brother. Those concerns will be taken into account. It may be done maybe immediately after his visit (laughter).

WARNER: Secretary Kerry's challenge in Nairobi today is not just to convince Kenyans to keep on hosting Somali refugees for an extra week or an extra year, but for as long as the seemingly endless conflict in Somalia rages on. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.