Kenya's interior minister has given the UNHCR two weeks to draft a plan to close two main camps housing half-a-million refugees, mostly from Somalia.
Interior Minister Fred Matiang'i told Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper the United Nations Refugee Agency had 14 days to present a plan to repatriate hundreds of thousands of people within four months.
Matiang'i asserted there was "no room for further negotiations," citing government intentions since 2016 to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, close to Somalia.
The Kakuma camp in Kenya's northwest, close to South Sudan, should also be closed, the cabinet secretary for interior insisted.
Failing closures, Kenya itself would "transport the refugees to the border with Somalia," reported the Daily Nation, citing Matiang'i.
Timeframe 'short,' says UNHCR
In an initial reaction Wednesday, the UNHCR's Nairobi office said Matiang'i's initiative came "within a short timeframe" and "would have an impact on the protection of refugees in Kenya," complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We urge the Government of Kenya to ensure that any decisions allow for suitable and sustainable solutions to be found," added the UNHCR
Since May 2020, the UNHCR and affiliated agencies have provided quarantine and hygiene facilities to mitigate the disease in both camps.
Dadaab, established in 1991 to house people fleeing drought and warfare in Somali, and Kakuma, mainly housing South Sudanese, have 512,000 refugees and asylum-seekers combined, according to UNHCR statistics.
Also present at Kakuma are people from Ethiopia, Burundi, DR Congo and Sudan.
Allusions to terror attacks
Matiang'i said it was the government's task to protect Kenyans -- an apparent reference to Al-Shabaab attacks by Islamist militants based in Somalia on Nairobi's Westgate mall in 2013 and Garissa University College in 2015 in eastern Kenya and Kenya intelligence assertions that elements inside the camps had been involved in terrorist planning.
Kenya's Interior Ministry denied that Matiangi's initiative was related to diplomatic differences with Somalian authorities, for example, over a maritime boundary.
In 2016, the UNHCR had also expressed "profound concern" over the then-Kenyan government's intention to end the hosting of refugees, which was blocked by Kenya's High Court on the grounds that Nairobi would be in breach of its international obligations.
Kenya had been a "leading beacon" for international protection, said the UNHCR at the time, providing safety for hundreds of thousands fleeing persecution.
Since 2013, when Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR agreed on a voluntary repatriation scheme, Somali refugees on at least seven "Go and See" trips have been able to visit Baidoa and Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. to assess possible returns.
Voluntary repatriations from January to December last year amounted to 26, notes the UNHCR in the small print of its February statistics, while 53 refugees had been resettled to other countries.
Kenya also hosts tens of thousands more refugees at smaller camps such as Kalobeyei, also in Kenya's northwest, and near Nairobi.
Climate change impacts
Last Monday, to mark World Water Day, Save the Children said three-quarters of Somalia's families lack safe drinking water as climate change exacted a heavy toll across eastern Africa.
Somalis were leaving customary areas in search of water and food, also for their livestock, said Save the Children head for Somalia Mohamud Mohamed Hassan.
Some 1,700 new arrivals at Kakuma in February, says the UNHCR, included people from South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.