The few Kenyans I have spoken with regarding the US government’s Friday decision to close its borders to refugees & immigrants (legal and illegal) from seven predominantly Muslim countries almost unanimously disapprove of the move. However, they stutter when asked about the Kenya government’s highly publicized decision to close down the Dadaab Refugee Camp and this I find interesting for reasons I will explain shortly.
First however, for those unfamiliar with the matter, some background may be helpful. Dadaab is currently the world’s largest refugee camp. It was founded in 1991 to welcome people fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Somalia and has since become home to over 350,000 refugees. In November 2013, the Foreign Ministries of Somalia, Kenya and the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) signed a tripartite agreement in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, agreeing to the voluntary repatriation of Somalia nationals living in Dadaab. This repatriation effort was admittedly prompted by an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall and the belief that Al Shabaab militants were responsible and furthermore that they were using Dadaab as a recruiting ground for ever more militants to join their ranks. Sure, the government says that the repatriation of the refugees to Somalia is voluntary and that forced repatriations are illegal but with the same breath it has gives a May 5th 2017 closing date for the camp. This begs the question, if repatriation is only voluntary what happens to refugees who choose not to go back to a war-zone when the deadline for the camp closure passes? They certainly will not be given Kenyan Passports and welcomed into our society. They will almost certainly by default become illegals and illegal immigrants are subject to deportation under the law, are they not? (P.S: The same law protects anyone accorded Refugee status from forced deportation so the legal conundrum here not withstanding, if the government proceeds as it plans then some human rights will be violated any way we look at it). The camp has many shortcomings and a future there is not particularly bright but it at least offers a modicum of protection that is clearly absent across the border in Somalia.
So how is what America’s government has done connected to what the Kenyan government is doing here? Well, both actions are motivated by fear and are resulting in the rejection & ejection of outsiders regardless of circumstance, in a bid to keep citizens safe. We find it easy to judge the Americans supporting Trump’s actions but are less inclined to judge our own government (and those of us accepting or applauding it) as harshly for forcefully sending back Somali refugees to an unstable country and an even more uncertain future because of our own National Security concerns -specifically the fear of recurring Al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil.
It would seem that to us the latter is somehow more acceptable than the former but aren’t they both lines read from the same script? Governments closing borders and pushing aside concerns for the resulting cost in human suffering to outsiders in a bid to quell internal fear of harm to its citizens? Harm that to many of us seems to, at least on the surface, be directly correlated to the acceptance of foreigners from certain countries into our borders?
Now if you talk to Kenyans who lost loved ones at Westage Mall or Garissa University or the may other attacks claimed by and blamed on the Al Shabaab militants you feel their pain and suffering and in that moment you want to do everything you can as a leader to stop it. Likewise, if you speak to hotel owners in the Coast they will tell you that the local economy has lost millions of dollars in income to the fear created by these attacks and the negative impact of the resulting travel advisories on tourist numbers in the country and in that moment you feel the threat of impending bankruptcies, lost jobs and looming poverty for those who rely on the tourism sector to feed their families and you want to do anything you can as a leader to stop it. In that moment, you become convinced that doing something however partial the solution is better than doing nothing. And it is at such moments that tripartite agreements to close refugee camps (and likewise, executive orders to ban refugees and immigrants from some countries) are signed. In close context, it seems to make sense. In close context it seems, this action is the only viable option.
Viewed in a slightly wider context however, you realize that some of those you spoke to who lost people in Westgate, Garissa and other attacks as well as those lamenting the effect of terrorist attacks on their ability to put food on the table in the Kenyan Coast are Muslims as well. They are innocent, peaceful, patriotic, productive, law-abiding citizens who just so happen to be Muslims as well. Yet despite this religious kinship with their brethren across the border, they still seem somehow fine with these measures affecting fellow Muslims from a different country because the actions of the extremists there have caused direct misery in their own lives. And in light of this realization, you feel justified. If fellow Muslims see the logic of your actions then those actions cannot possibly be as irrationally biased as some of us would like you to think, right? Your actions cannot possibly be interpreted as religious or ethnic bias when citizens of the same religions and ethnicities support them, can they? No. In such a case, your actions can be considered something else entirely. Civic duty. Civic responsibility even. You are just doing your job and helping your fellow citizens avoid suffering. It just so happens to be at the expense of others. But in such an impossible situation, what can you possibly do about that? They are not your immediate responsibility. Your fellow citizens are. You think this and you let out a deep breath and sign the document that will make them homeless and because of it your citizens sleep a little better at night. Yes. The are not your problem. Let THEIR government cater to their welfare for once.
You conveniently forget that if their government could do that, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.
There will be no quotes from great men and women about the true meaning of humanity or a clever metaphor about looking in mirrors. I am not writing this to tell anyone what to think about this problem. That you must decide as an individual. I only write this to point out the double standard implicit in our condemnation of what is happening across the Atlantic while accepting similar actions on our own soil. To unmask the irony in calling Trump and his supporters stupid for generalizing and persecuting entire nationalities, ethnicities and religions while we simultaneously sit silent because the alternative of finding a way to fight modern extremism without resorting to generalizations seems like too hard a task. To make sure that even if you do nothing about the situation, at the very least this danger of falling into hypocrisy crosses your mind the next time you type or utter any words to anyone on this subject.