GENEVA - Kenya's decision to stop hosting refugees could have "devastating consequences" for hundreds of thousands of people, the UN warned Monday, urging the country with the world's largest refugee camp to reconsider.
Citing security concerns, Kenya said Friday that it planned to close refugee camps on its soil and would no longer automatically grant refugee status to arriving asylum seekers.
The UN refugee agency voiced alarm at the announcement, warning against "the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have."
Kenya hosts some 550,000 refugees in camps in the north of the country.
Dadaab camp in the northeast, the world's largest, mainly accommodates refugees from neighbouring Somalia.
Kakuma camp in the north-west principally hosts people fleeing a civil war in South Sudan.
"The safety of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, South Sudanese and others has (long) hinged on Kenya’s generosity and its willingness to be a leading beacon in the region for international protection," UNHCR said in a statement.
"Tragically, the situations in Somalia and South Sudan that cause people to flee are still unresolved today," it added.
A Kenyan interior ministry spokesman said last week that the decision to stop hosting refugees was aimed at Somalis, but that people from other countries might also be affected.
Government and security officials regularly assert that Islamic militants from the Somali-based Shebab group hide, thrive and recruit among Somali refugees, claims denied by independent observers and by refugees themselves who point out many of them have fled Shebab's depredations.
Following deadly Shebab assaults on Nairobi's Westgate mall in 2013 and last year on Garissa university, senior officials threatened to close Dadaab and kick out the refugees.
Kenya said Friday that new arrivals from Somalia will no longer receive 'prima facie' refugee status but will have to argue their cases individually.
However, it also said that the agency tasked with processing those applications, the Department of Refugee Affairs, would be shut down.
UNHCR appealed to Kenya to continue hosting the refugees, warning that it risked worsening the current global refugee crisis if it did not.
"In today's global context of some 60 million people forcibly displaced, it is more important than ever that international asylum obligations prevail and are properly supported," the agency said.
"In light of this, and because of the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have, UNHCR is calling on the government of Kenya to reconsider its decision," it said.