NAIROBI - Kenyan authorities have begun a month-long vetting process at the Dadaab refugee camp near Somalia to determine who qualifies as a Somali asylum-seeker and who is a Kenyan citizen.
Thousands of Somalis have called the camp home since 1991, when political instability sparked by the fall of President Siad Barre's government forced them to flee their country. But a number of Kenyans also call the camp home after escaping the effects of a severe drought.
The Dadaab refugee camp is home to about 200,000 people. The government says they include some 40,000 Kenyans of Somali descent who falsely claimed to be Somali refugees in order to receive free food assistance from aid agencies and eventual passage to the West.
Thirty-year-old Abdirashid Mohamed is a Kenya-born ethnic Somali who was falsely registered as a refugee when Dadaab opened in 1991.
Mohamed says, “I was young when I was registered as a refugee. I was young and I couldn't think on my own. We registered as a refugee due to our problems. These people came to our area and at the time free food was being provided. I don’t think there is someone who can stay away in a place where free food is given out. That is how we ended up being refugees.”
Mohamed, a taxi driver like tens of thousands like him, says he didn't want to be a refugee anymore. He was able to provide documents proving that he is a Kenyan citizen, meaning he will be free to leave Dadaab when authorities clear him to do so.
Twenty-five-year-old Bashir Ahmed, a high school graduate, was born at Dadaab four years after it opened. His parents are Kenyans of Somali descent. His family registered at the camp in order to get free food, water, and medicine.
But Ahmed says his family's desperation cost him his freedom for a while.
“My parents are Kenyans; even with relatives in the nearest Garissa town, I couldn't visit them or go on with my education, so I was just staying at home without any movement.”
Hussein Abdirahman, Dadaab's assistant country commissioner, explained the government's decision to determine who at the camp is legally Kenyan.
“There are people who have been suffering - some of them were young when their fingerprints were taken into the database and the mistake was their parents...they cannot secure identification cards; they cannot secure passports because of maybe a mistake done by their parents. I think as a country we are giving our youth who maybe could have gone in other wrong ways, maybe could have done something that is not right we bring them to close we give them their citizenship so that they feel they are part of the country,” Abdirahman said.
Kenyan authorities have said the camp - which they have sought to close - is a recruiting ground for al-Shabab militants. There have been concerns the militants from Somalia have used the camp to plan and carry out attacks in Kenya and Somalia.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that more than 80,000 Somali refugees have returned home in the past five years.
Ahmed was successful in defending his Kenyan status and says he is looking forward to pursuing a university education after four years at home.
“Since I finished high school, I have not continued with my studies. I was at home. I didn’t have an identification card to go to the nearest town. Since I am expecting to get a Kenya identification card, I will study further. It was the main thing I was missing,” Ahmed said.
The vetting process ends next month.