The government has said it will proceed with its plans to shut down Dadaab camp even as refugees continue to shun the voluntary repatriation programme started in 2014.
This is the latest bid to close down one of the oldest refugee centres in the region amid suspicions that it was harbouring terror sympathisers, setting the scene for another round of fierce lobbying from relief agencies.
Mr Kodeck Makori, head of the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, told the Nation that the voluntary repatriation programme had been going on since the pilot batch of 5,200 was done in December 2014.
"We have repatriated about 84,000 refugees from Somalia and other countries. So it is a continuing process," he said on Friday.
"The government will close Dadaab as planned. As it is now, we do not have people who have declined the repatriation but we are carrying out the process with those who have accepted to return voluntarily," he added.
The secretariat took over from the Department of Refugee Affairs (partly funded by UNHCR), which was disbanded in 2016 as the government tried to force its hand to have the camp closed by suspending new registrations.
There are indications that the shut-down will have taken place by September, according to humanitarian workers who spoke to the Nation on condition of anonymity.
But the camp situated in Garissa county has been the centre of protracted negotiations between the Kenya government, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) and Somalia.
This will be the fourth attempt to close it.
In 2013, the three parties had signed a tripartite agreement to source funds, prepare the ground back in Somalia and facilitate the voluntary return of refugees. Those who accepted were to be given a stipend and other support.
But refugees seem to have shied away from this programme. Figures from UNHCR show that the number of refugees who left the camp on their own is more than those who went under the guided programme.
In 2014, there were about 350,000 refugees. Today, the camp hosts 210,556 refugees, of which 202,381 are from Somalia. According to UNHCR, some 79,328 Somali refugees have gone back under the voluntary repatriation.
So why did the programme become unpopular among refugees? One reason advanced by relief agencies was that it wasn't safe to return home. The UNHCR itself, which initially ran a pilot relocation programme via road, later suspended it.
"Facilitation of road movement remains suspended due to military operations en-route to Kismayu, Baidoa and other major return areas," a spokesperson told Sunday Nation on Friday.
"However, flight options remain open to refugees willing to return to Mogadishu, Kismayu and Baidoa."
It is also expensive. In 2017, then Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery announced a Sh1 billion fund for the programme.
It didn't take off. Sources indicated donors stayed away because it was a forced programme.
The EU and the US had routinely financed refugee services in Kenya. But they often asked for phased, voluntary repatriations, rather than forced ones based on set timelines, one interior official involved in the programme indicated.
When the government ordered UNHCR to shut the camp in six months in 2015, donors and relief agencies opposed the move as illegal.
Under the Refugee Convention, a person fleeing their country for safety cannot be returned forcibly. And as Kenya is a signatory, the donors said they would pull out if force was used.
On Friday, the US government said it would continue to support Kenya, whose commitment to host refugees is "critical" to the stability of the region.
"The Kenya government's directive to close Dadaab refugee camp complex is an opportunity to pursue durable solutions for the 208,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the camp," a spokesperson from the US Embassy in Nairobi said.
The donors are emphasising on programmes for self-reliance and "fair solutions" meant to benefit both refugees and local communities. But in the absence of a tripartite agreement (which expired in 2016), Somalia may not be obliged to prepare the ground yet, leaving refugees on their own.
As it is, Kenya is prohibited by law from forcing refugees out of the country.