The Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya together host more than 410,000 people, a small proportion of whom are from South Sudan.
Nairobi authorities first announced their intention to close the Dadaab camp, which is closer to the Somali border than Kakuma, in 2016, citing national security concerns.
Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister, has given UNHCR 14 days to come up with a plan for the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma, his ministry said in a tweet, adding that there was no room for further talks on the matter.
UNHCR urged Kenya to ensure that those in need of protection continue to obtain it and pledged to continue participating in the dialogue.
“The decision would have an impact on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” it said in a statement.
Somali authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Kenyan government’s attempt to shut down Dadaab in 2016 was reported by intelligence reports showing that two major attacks on Kenyan targets in 2013 and 2015 took place involving elements in the camps. The plan was blocked by the higher court, which called the measure unconstitutional.
The camp was established three decades ago and was once the largest refugee camp in the world, at its peak hosting more than half a million people fleeing violence and drought in Somalia.
Kakuma, located in the northwest, is home to more than 190,000 refugees, some from neighboring South Sudan.
Kenyan authorities informed UNHCR on Tuesday that they would bring the refugees to the border with Somalia if the camps are not closed, the Daily Nation newspaper reported. The Interior Ministry told Reuters the reports were accurate.
Kenya’s move comes as relations with Somalia deteriorate, after Mogadishu cut diplomatic ties with Nairobi last December, accusing it of interfering in its internal affairs.
The two nations are also facing off in the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute, although Kenya has boycotted the hearing of the case.
The Kenyan Interior Ministry told Reuters that the decision to close the camps was not related to diplomatic difficulties with Somalia.