Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Nairobi Demands Refugees Return to Camps
Children play in Dadaab camp which is home to more than 400,000 refugees. (Photo: Riyaad Minty/Flickr)
Ignoring past criticism, the Kenyan government has repeated orders for refugees living in the country to return to designated camps.
The latest call by the Department of Refugee Affairs on April 15 follows last month’s declaration by interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku, who said that refugees – who are mostly from Somalia – must go back to the camps where they are registered as living.
He warned that “any refugee found flouting the directive would be dealt with in accordance with the law”.
The moves come as part of a government response to security fears following a series of terrorist attacks.
The most spectacular strike was last September, when militants from the Somali al-Shabab group took control of a Nairobi shopping mall, killing 67 people. More recently, gunmen fired on a church in the coastal city of Mombasa on March 23, killing six people and wounding several others. A week later, multiple explosions in Nairobi’s largely Somali-inhabited suburb of Eastleigh killed six people.
On April 1, a well-known Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abubakar Shariff, was shot dead by unknown assailants as he left a maximum security prison in Mombasa. He had been bailed and was awaiting trial on terror charges.
The attacks are thought to be retaliation for the operations the Kenyan military has been pursuing against al-Shabab inside Somalia since October 2011.
Haron Komen, Kenya’s acting commissioner for refugee affairs, said the latest order was intended “to improve the management of refugees and help security agents discharge their mandate to the public”.
But rights groups say the policy could lead to indiscriminate persecution of Somali refugees.
Statistics from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR indicated that there are around 500,000 Somali refugees in Kenya. As many as 400,000 of them are registered in the Dadaab camp, near the border with Somalia, where residents live in cramped and squalid conditions. Another camp, Kakuma, hosts around 100,000 refugees.
Over the last fortnight, security forces have arrested more than 4,000 people in Eastleigh in a security operation known as Operation Usalama Watch. Detainees are being screened by the police, the national registration bureau and the department of refugee affairs.
According to a police spokesperson, 467 of those arrested have been detained for further investigation and 67 people have been charged. The government says it plans to deport anyone who does not have official documents giving them the right to remain in Kenya.
Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya told journalists in Nairobi that 82 Somali nationals had already been deported to Mogadishu.
UNHCR is seeking access to those detained “to properly identify refugees, asylum-seekers and others of concern” and appealed to the Kenyan authorities “to uphold the rights of all those arrested and to treat them in a humane and non-discriminatory manner”.
Islamic leaders have condemned the police’s actions, accusing them of targeting and harassing Muslims, and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) has also claimed that police are mistreating Somali Muslims.
“Whether Muslim or Christian – terrorist suspects or not – everyone enjoys basic rights which must be respected,” KNCHR director Patricia Nyaundi told IWPR. “Although such screening was justified, the law requires that all potential deportees be produced in court within 24 hours for determination of their deportation order.”
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said some of the Somali refugees arrested in Eastleigh had been released and ordered to report to refugee camps within two weeks. It condemned moves to deport people to Somalia.
“The deportation of Somalis to their conflict-ridden country without allowing them to seek asylum would be a flagrant breach of legal obligations by Kenyan authorities,” Gerry Simpson, Human Rights Watch’s senior refugee researcher in Nairobi said.
Local and international rights organisations have criticised the policy of sending refugees back to camps.
“The authorities have failed to show, as international law requires, that the plan was either necessary to achieve enhanced national security or the least restrictive measure possible to address Kenya’s national security concerns,” Simpson said. “The plan [is] also unlawful [and] discriminates against refugees, because it would allow Kenyan citizens to move freely while denying refugees that right.”
Simpson added that Kenya was using attacks by unidentified criminals to “stigmatise all refugees as potential terrorists”.
The government’s order goes against a ruling handed down by Kenya’s High Court in July 2013, which stated that a similar effort in 2012 was unlawful. In the ruling, the High Court said the government order “threatens the rights and fundamental freedoms of the petitioners and other refugees residing in urban areas and is a violation of freedom of movement”.
It also said the policy violated the state’s responsibility towards people in vulnerable situations.
“The new plan risks riding roughshod over Kenya’s High Court and a range of refugees’ fundamental rights,” Simpson said. “Foreign donors to Kenya and UNHCR should encourage Kenya to abandon the plan.”
As well as raising concerns about the legality of the move, rights groups have also questioned the practicalities
A report by the medical charity, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) last month, described both humanitarian conditions and the security situation in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps as “appalling.”
Christopher Horwood, who works for the Danish Refugee Council in Kenya, told IWPR that the sheer numbers of Somalis living in Kenya made putting the government’s plan into practice a huge challenge. Some of them are there illegally and do not feature in any official figures.
“It is hard to see how this policy can be implemented [as] the numbers of urban registered refugees and non-registered irregular Somali migrants or asylum-seekers is probably very high, in excess of 200,000,” Horwood said.
Nor is it clear whether the refugees camps will be able to cope with a new influx of people on this scale. As Horwood pointed out, “[aid] agencies are scaling down distribution quantities at the camps, not expanding them”.
The Kenyan authorities have denied that conditions in the camps present any obstacles to refugees returning there.
“There is adequate space at the camps and the condition is not as deplorable as reports suggest,” Komen, the acting commissioner for refugee affairs, told a press conference in Nairobi on April 15. “There are adequate amenities at every camp.”
The security benefits of sending refugees back to camps and deporting illegal immigrants are questionable.
“The threat comes from a small and radical section of the Somali community [who] may be resident, or refugee, or living in Somalia and only come into Kenya temporarily to cause trouble,” Horwood told IWPR. “Consequently, it is very misplaced to demonise a whole population because of the action of a small minority.”
Others argue that Kenyan counter-terrorism efforts should not focus merely on foreign nationals.
“The government should widen its net outside the Muslim community,” said Mishi Juma Mboko, a member of parliament in Mombasa. “Due to prevalent poverty, anyone can be recruited into terrorism for financial gain.”
Refugees currently living in Eastleigh have expressed their concerns about returning to the camps.
Majid, 35, suffers from spinal problems and needs medical help that can only be found in Nairobi.
“I was brought into Nairobi last year because I needed specialist treatment for my spinal problem,” Majid told IWPR. “Forcing me and many others with critical health situations back [to the Dadaab camp] means sending us to early graves because no such medical facilities are in the camps.”
This article was produced as part of a media development programme implemented by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation.
- Europe / Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East / North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Print Publications