Kenyan Court Blocks Government Plan to Close the World’s Largest Refugee Camp Move prevents repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Somalis

Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in Kenya, pictured in 2011.

Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in Kenya, pictured in 2011. PHOTO: TONY KARUMBA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenya’s high court Thursday threw out a government plan to shut down the world’s biggest refugee camp, halting the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Somalis to the war-ravaged nation and relieving pressure on refugee facilities caused by President Donald Trump’s recent travel ban.

The court ruling suspends plans for the closure of Dadaab but the government can appeal the decision.

The Kenyan government said last year it wanted to shut down Dadaab, where roughly 300,000 Somali refugees have been living for years, many born there as their homeland has been in the throes of a civil war and a violent Islamic insurgency.

“The government decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional,” Judge John Mativo ruled in Nairobi Thursday. He said the plan was a violation of Kenya’s obligations under international law, and declared it “null and void.”

Despite the United Nations and Western countries that helped Kenya fund Dadaab decrying the decision last year, the government insisted it would go ahead with its plan, seen as part of its electoral campaign ahead of polls this August.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the admission of Somali refugees to the U.S. because of concerns they pose a security risk has added pressure to resolve the refugees’ situation.

The U.S. last year accepted 11,000 Somali refugees, many of whom were joining families. The number is a drop in the bucket of 1 million Somalis refugees in Kenya and other East African countries, but was still helped in managing the population and giving more vulnerable displaced Somalis, especially small children, a chance at an education outside the limited future offered at the vast refugee camp that lies in a desert land between Kenya and Somalia.

News of Mr. Trump’s decision last month shook Dadaab and left thousands who had already gone through multiyear vetting procedures by U.S. authorities in limbo, fearful that Kenya would send them home as the U.S. was shutting the door.

“After months of anxiety because of the camp closure deadline hanging over their heads, increasingly restricted asylum options and the recent U.S. administration suspension of refugee resettlement, the court’s judgment offers Somali refugees a hope that they may still have a choice other than returning to insecure and drought-ridden Somalia,” said Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch

Somalia, which Wednesday evening elected a new president, a U.S.-Somali dual national who fled the civil war to find refuge in Buffalo where he spent much of his adult life, is facing an extraordinary combination of problems.

Apart from the inter-clan conflict that has been going on for 25 years and al-Shabaab still controlling swaths of the country and wreaking havoc with attacks, the Somali economy is decimated and a drought has left some six million people on the verge of famine, according to the U.N.

Write to Matina Stevis at matina.stevis@wsj.com

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