By Mark Yarnell
Four months ago, the Kenyan government launched a major crackdown against Somali refugees living in urban areas that involved mass arrests, extortion, and even deportations back to Somalia. This week, my colleague, Alice Thomas, and I are traveling to Kenya to assess the deteriorating situation for those refugees.
There are currently around half-a-million Somali refugees in Kenya. For the past two decades, they have fled their home country to escape periods of intense conflict, drought, and food shortages. The majority of Somali refugees live in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya, but several tens of thousands also live in urban areas, like Nairobi. For years, the Kenyan government accepted the presence of refugees living in cities – where they could access educational opportunities and pursue livelihoods that were not available in camps. In 2009, Kenya became a pilot country for the launch of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) global urban refugee policy. By 2013, over 55,000 refugees were officially registered in Kenyan cities.
Unfortunately, the Kenyan government is dramatically reversing course. In March 2014, citing security concerns, the Kenyan government ordered all city-based refugees to relocate to the Dadaab and Kakuma camps and asked all Kenyan citizens to report refugees not in camps to the police. The government then launched a security operation in which thousands of Somalis were rounded up in abusive police swoops. In addition to arbitrary detentions, hundreds of Somalis were forcibly relocated to Dadaab and Kakuma while hundreds of others were deported by plane to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, including people with refugee certification. Tragically, these relocations have separated mothers from their children, denied some people access to the medical treatment they were receiving in Nairobi, and deprived refugees of work opportunities that allowed them to support themselves.
Through these actions, Kenya has violated the most fundamental element of refugee protection - the right of a refugee not to be forced to return to the place from which they fled while danger persists (non-refoulement). And danger certainly persists in Mogadishu, as demonstrated by last week’s major attack against the Somali Presidential Palace by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. Worse still is the fact that parts of Somalia to which refugees are being deported are in the midst of a food crisis resulting from another season of poor rains across the region, meaning that many will struggle to access even the most basic necessities like food.
I was in Kenya last year after the Kenyan government announced a similar encampment policy, followed by systematic police abuse. I met with refugees in Nairobi’s Somali-dominated Eastleigh neighborhood who had been arrested, beaten, and bribed by various members of Kenya’s security services. Fortunately, the government was taken to court and the policy of forcing refugees to camps was quashed. In his decision, High Court Judge, D.S. Majanja, wrote that the 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…right to dignity…and violates the State’s responsibility towards persons in vulnerable situations.”Kenya’s most recent policy announcement flies in the face of that decision.
Kenya faces legitimate national security concerns, and has indeed faced growing insecurity in recent years – including a series of grenade explosions in public places, last year’s major attack against the Westgate Mall, and recent mass killings in the coastal region. But rounding up thousands of refugees and asylum seekers and sending them back to face violent conflict and hunger is not only unlawful, but also unlikely to prove successful as a strategy for addressing the growing insecurity facing the region.