By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency urged Kenya on Tuesday to rethink its order to close the world's largest refugee camp, saying it would not participate in forcing Somalis back to their homeland as that would breach international law.
Kenya gave the United Nations three months to remove Dadaab camp, housing 350,000 registered Somali refugees, as part of its response to the killing of 148 people in nearby Garissa by a Somali Islamist group.
Kenya has in the past said al Shabaab militants use Dadaab camp as a hideout.
The UNHCR said the "abrupt" plan "would have "extreme humanitarian and practical consequences".
"We are thus urging the Kenyan authorities to give the matter further consideration," UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl told a news briefing.
"The main issue is the voluntariness of returns. If these people were forced to return, it could be in breach of international law and UNHCR would not facilitate such a move," she said.
The 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, to which Kenya is a party, prohibits forcing refugees back to areas where their life or freedom is threatened, a practice known as 'refoulement'.
Njonjo Mue, of the human rights coalition Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice, said the logistics of emptying Dadaab "boggles the mind" and could play into al Shabaab's hand.
"Basically, we would be handing over to al Shabaab a ready-made army of say 200,000 young men who will be desperate and who will have nothing to do," he said.
UNHCR considers that large-scale returns of refugees is still not possible in many parts of Somalia, where public services such as schools and healthcare are lacking after 20 years of conflict.
The U.N. agency said it was ready to work with Kenyan authorities to strengthen law enforcement at Dadaab to help protect refugees and Kenyans against possible intrusion by armed groups or "terrorist incursions" from across the border.
"The government of Kenya has not said this camp should be closed because al Shabaab is in the camp. The government of Kenya is just concerned about the whole situation in the camp," de Gruijl said.
"With them we have stepped up law enforcement in the camp, so the situation is much calmer now than some years ago."
At its peak, Dadaab held 500,000 Somali refugees, many of whom had fled famine in 2001, she said.
"The majority of the people who are still in the camp are those who have been there for a very long time including some of them for generations."
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in Nairobi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)