By Joseph Wandera
Amid a global Covid-19 pandemic, the government of Kenya has once again threatened to shut down two huge refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma, northern Kenya.
This threat comes as billions across the world stay at home, afraid for their lives and futures. The decision, if implemented, will have grave humanitarian consequences for some of the neediest people within the global community.
To be sure, Kenya has been a safe haven of hospitality to refugees, running away from insecurity and hardship.
The two camps are home to about 410,000 people, mainly from Somalia and South Sudan.
Back in 2016, the government mooted plans to close the camps, citing national security concerns. A high court blocked the attempt, calling it unconstitutional.
In response to the recent threat, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has reiterated its commitment to dialogue, asking Kenya to guarantee protection for the refugees.
Understandably, the UNHCR has argued: “The decision would have an impact on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Geneva Convention on refugees provides for a shared understanding of the global family regarding the rights of refugees. It is worrying how the Geneva Refugees Convention is now being pushed aside and undermined by threats to shut down Dadaab and Kakuma.
While the stance of the Kenyan government may well be a bargaining position rather than a realistic threat, it should not be underestimated.
A while ago, the government disbanded Kenya’s refugee’s agency — the Department of Refugee Affairs — an indicator it may actually implement its threat.
In this uncertainty, the lives of refugees grow more precarious.
It may be good to ponder how life looks like on the refugee side of things. This calls for immigrating from the comfort of our rooms, in search of insights among the poor and vulnerable.
These are people who are faced with such grave crises as war, hunger, lack of shelter, and sexual molestation, among others. They have fled their homes in pursuit of safety and a better life.
In a country whose first stanza of the national anthem starts by affirming “Oh God of all creation,” moral voices are urgently needed on this question, including those of religious actors.
All faiths have plenty to say about people called “strangers” and “sojourners.”
Sadly, church leaders in Kenya “have kept silent at this simmering humanitarian crisis,” says Jane, a social worker who worships at Bishop Hannington Cathedral in the Diocese of Mumias.
Claiming to protect national security by shutting out those who seek refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermines our shared values, and raises up national boundaries as idols.
Expelling refugees from Kenya would also bring into question the famed “African hospitality,” which the late Anglican canon John Mbiti encapsulated as “I am because we are and because we are I am.”
Yet, as Kenya has argued, refugees should not be Kenya’s problem alone. Showing compassion for all of God’s creation is a systemic matter. To see refugees as our collective burden requires moral courage and is a calling many would avoid.
Sadly, this huge humanitarian crisis is willfully ignored and neglected by most world leaders. This feeling of betrayal by the international community is notable within refugee circles.
At the heart of the Old Testament is the injunction to welcome and share hospitality with the “stranger,” those who are outside one’s community of faith. Such hospitality is illustrated in stories such as Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three strangers (Gen. 18), and with God’s command that the Israelites should welcome the stranger and sojourner because they too were strangers in Egypt (see Lev. 19:33-34).
The story of Easter season is about Christ’s ultimate hospitality expressed in his life, ministry and death and ascension. His self-identification is with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned and estranged is profound (Matt. 25:31-46).
The eschatological vision in the book of Revelation refers to the city of Jerusalem as a metaphor, to show a life lived in relation to God, a home to every tribe, nation, race and tongue. As such, love must prevail over fear when it comes to our needy global neighbors, rough as the circumstances may be.
Balancing our books during a pandemic on the backs of the world’s poorest is unacceptable. Nor can we use our maritime dispute with Somalia justify inhuman actions.
A higher moral vision is at stake amid a global pandemic.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Wandera is Bishop of Mumias in the Anglican Church of Kenya, and is a member of the Living Church Foundation.