Kenya + 9 more

In the Name of Security: Erosion of Refugee Rights in East Africa

Originally published
Binaifir Nowrojee 1
Binaifir Nowrojee, Counsel for Human Rights Watch/Africa, examines why Tanzania and Kenya have recently become less hospitable to refugees.

The army came and told us to pack what we could carry.

Some people were driven by the army to Kibirizi and others walked the nine kilometers. One old woman tried to say something, but they would not listen. They would only say, "All Burundians must go to the camps."

A Burundian refugee, one of the tens of thousands roughly rounded up by the Tanzanian army, separated from his family, and stripped of his belongings before being confined to the refugee camps in western Tanzania. 2

We live an insecure life. We are frequently arrested by the police who require bribes before they will release us. Sometimes they come into our houses at night and drag us from our beds to the police cells. We fear not only the Kenyan police but also threats from Ethiopians acting for the government. Recently a refugee was attacked by masked men, stabbed in the chest, and left for dead. Another was badly beaten. We cannot expect to get any help or protection from the Kenyan police because we are refugees.

An Oromo Ethiopian refugee in Kenya. 3

These refugees, caught up in the spillover of conflict in the region of East Africa, are the unfortunate victims of host governments' indiscriminate response to insecurity on their borders. Refugees from the Great Lakes region who seek refuge in neighboring countries are increasingly being subjected to arbitrary mistreatment by host governments that previously welcomed them. Governments such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda that have historically welcomed large numbers of refugees are increasingly viewing them as a source of violence and insecurity.

For decades, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have provided security and refuge for hundreds of thousands of African refugees, including those from Burundi, Sudan, Rwanda, and South Africa, among others. They have offered land for settlement, integration, and, at times, even citizenship. In 1999, these three East African countries hosted about 900,000 refugees, nearly a third of whom arrived in 1999 alone. Despite the heavy burden of hosting such large populations, these countries have continued to provide them refuge. However, the massive influx of refugees since 1990 - and the attendant crime and insecurity caused by extremists among the refugees, economic strain, and environmental degradation - have resulted in a growing hostility and unwillingness to keep refugees in East Africa.

Unfortunately, some of the policies East African countries are adopting undermine refugee protection in violation of international law and reverse the generous asylum tradition for which these countries have been well-respected. This is occurring in a politically charged environment where xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment among East Africans of all walks of life have notably hardened.

Nationality-based round-ups, forced confinement in refugee camps, harassment and intimidation of refugees by police, and a lack of due process rights have become a widely accepted part of being a refugee in East Africa. This arbitrary mistreatment has been most pronounced in Kenya and Tanzania; the Uganda authorities, thus far, have been much more receptive to refugees relative to their counterparts in Kenya and Tanzania. While there are some problems in Uganda, those seem to be more attributable to international community neglect. Although Uganda is not violating refugee rights in any way approaching Tanzania and Kenya, it is in the process of negotiating with Kenya and Tanzania to standardize the refugee practices of the three governments. This risks lowering Uganda's standards to a common denominator that would further restrict refugee rights throughout the region.

A factor contributing to East Africa's more guarded response to refugees is the unwillingness of the international community to assist African host governments in addressing the massive assistance and protection burdens they undertake in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Because of resource constraints, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not provided consistent and timely assistance. Nor has UNHCR's less-than-vigorous advocacy approach provided sufficient protection for refugees fearing for their lives in East Africa. Specifically, UNHCR has failed to address adequately the ongoing problem of armed groups recruiting and training refugees.

Valid National Security Concerns

Governments around the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region have legitimate security concerns. The conflicts in neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea can, and have, spilled over in the region. The reports of cross-border extremist activity, arms trafficking, recruitment and training of refugees by rebel groups, and the extortion of food or money by militias are serious national security concerns that these governments must address. Weapons flows, crime, and banditry have increased along the border areas of these front-line East African countries in the past few years. Furthermore, conditions are unlikely to improve sufficiently for these refugees to return home any time soon.

While national and border security issues are clearly a priority for any government and need to be addressed, long-term security interests are best served by implementing mechanisms that uphold the rule of law. Ultimately, indiscriminately criminalizing refugees without due process or individual accountability is neither an effective nor a sustainable security policy. The blanket presumption that refugees pose a security threat has become justification in Kenya and Tanzania for random round-ups, confinement to camps, harassment, and the daily infringement of refugees' rights. This presumption, and the international community's failure to advocate effectively against it, has led to an alarming pattern of deteriorating respect for refugee rights in East Africa. Security concerns are valid, but this response is not.

Governments do have a right to question foreign nationals who have not followed the requisite legal procedures for residence; however, the tactics being adopted violate international refugee and human rights law. For example, Kenyan and Tanzanian government policies that call for the confinement of all refugees on the grounds that some may pose a security threat are based on the mistaken presumption that all refugees are rebel fighters or criminals. Although these policies violate a refugee's right to freedom of movement (UN Refugee Convention, Article 31(2)), UNHCR has not effectively challenged them. Due process protections also require that if the government suspects members of a group of being involved in criminal or rebel activity, it should not take steps against the entire community. Instead, it should charge those individuals as warranted before a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. Granted, the challenges of local law enforcement in areas historically prone to insecurity are daunting in the best of times. The general disregard for refugee rights, however, contributes to the deterioration of the rule of law in what are sometimes virtually lawless parts of the country. UNHCR and donors need to do more to challenge what they now merely accept as status quo.

Forced Confinement in Refugee Camps

Since the 1990s, the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments have adopted practices and policies forcing refugees to live in refugee camps. Although there is no actual legislation requiring refugees to live in camps, refugees who do not comply know well that they are subject to constant police harassment and mistreatment and denied access to international assistance. The international relief community's acceptance of the practice of camp confinement reinforces the ability of these governments to force refugees into camps, violating their freedom of movement.

Given that refugees are not normally allowed to work, international humanitarian assistance is often the only means available to uphold the refugees' human right to a livelihood. Humanitarian assistance should be accorded primarily on the basis of need, not location; refugees need not be housed in camps to be accorded full recognition of their rights as refugees. The policy of linking the provision of humanitarian assistance to the acceptance of the "forced" residence in camps is ultimately a surreptitious - nonetheless unacceptable - form of denial of fundamental rights. Unfortunately, UNHCR and its partner agencies have given in to these restrictive government actions, in part to guarantee that its operations on the ground can continue. Thus, the humanitarian community has made decisions, independently and in collaboration with the government, which have contributed to the curtailment of fundamental rights. 4

Police Harassment

Police harassment and round-ups continue to threaten the safety of refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya and Tanzania. It is often only with bribes that refugees can avoid arbitrary arrest and detention. Police activities periodically intensify, as happened in September 1998 in Kenya, when police carried out systematic round-ups, sometimes in the middle of the night, forcing refugees to surrender their "protection letters" from UNHCR without being given a replacement document. In Kenya, police often drag refugees from their homes without warning, hold them in police custody, and bring them into court for being illegal aliens, despite UNHCR documentation showing that they are asylum seekers.

In late 1997 and 1998, the Tanzanian government ordered the army to round up all foreigners living outside the refugee camps, asserting that this was necessary to protect Tanzanian citizens living close to the border with Burundi. Soldiers roughly seized many refugees from their homes and farms. The speed of the operation gave refugees no opportunity to locate their family members or pack their belongings. Army soldiers and militia often demanded money from the refugees, and in some places Tanzanians looted refugee homes.

Many of these refugees had lived peacefully on integrated settlements allocated to them by the Tanzanian government as far back as the 1970s. Many of them, whose children had been born and brought up in Tanzania, spoke with regret about their destroyed communities, empty, looted homes, and ruined crops. One Burundian refugee woman, taken to the camps in 1997, said:

I fled Burundi in 1972 and came to Tanzania. I have lived in Rusaba B Settlement in Tanzania since that time with no problems. My seven children were born in Tanzania. We get along with our neighbors. We contribute to the community. We helped build the schools. We have given money for community development. We are thankful to the Tanzanians for giving us land and a life . . . I never thought that the Tanzanian government would do this to us . . . I am now held in a refugee camp, but my children are still outside. I would like them to come, but they have sent me a message that they have no money to come here. 5

Refugees outside camps live with the constant threat of harassment today.

The Need for Greater UNHCR Protection

The lack of assistance for the vast majority of asylum seekers and the extreme insecurity - from police round-ups and harassment to intimidation and even violence at the hands of political or ethnic factions from the refugees' country of origin - make asylum seekers in East Africa excessively vulnerable. The plight of human rights defenders is of particular concern to Human Rights Watch. In past years, an increasing number of human rights activists have been forced to flee their country because of their work. The work of human rights defenders is critical to stemming the very abuses that cause refugee flows, but this also makes them key targets for persecution in their home countries. Consequently, they often become refugees themselves, after facing severe persecution aimed at silencing them. Since many human rights workers from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa flee to East African countries, UNHCR offices in these countries should make a priority of assisting and protecting them.

For example, Congolese human rights defenders have been forced to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 because of direct threats on their lives. Rwandans once employed as local staff by the UN Human Rights Field Operation fled Rwanda after the UN operation ended several years ago because of tensions with the Rwandan government. Ethiopian (Oromo) human rights activists have sought refuge, sometimes having fled after arrest and torture. These refugees are at high risk of reprisal for their work, yet their ability to seek assistance as refugees is often hindered by their well-founded fears that they may remain targets even in a neighboring country.

Local UNHCR offices in the region have not accorded these urgent cases the prompt attention they deserve. In some cases, this results from backlogs, general budgetary constraints, and under-staffing within UNHCR. However, the issue is ultimately one of political will to make safety, responsiveness, and confidentiality a top priority. Often the process to apply for UNHCR recognition requires a waiting period and repeated trips to UNHCR offices. While a several-month wait may seem acceptable per se, this cannot be the case in the Ugandan or Kenyan context. In addition to police harassment and threats from the asylum seekers' own nationals, delayed assistance aggravates the psychological trauma and physical injuries of those seeking asylum who have been victims of torture.

Some human rights defenders have been reluctant to approach UNHCR offices to file for asylum for fear that informants from their home country will discover them. For example, in Kampala, Human Rights Watch documented confrontations on more than one occasion between asylum seekers in line for humanitarian assistance and security informants from their home country. The location of the UNHCR safe house in Kampala for high-risk cases is a well-known secret. As a result, even those refugees whose cases merit special protection remain vulnerable.

International Neglect

In 1999, the international community swiftly responded to humanitarian crises in Kosovo and East Timor, showing the international community's capacity to respond generously and speedily to alleviate the suffering of refugees and internally displaced persons. While this outpouring of support was welcome, it contrasted painfully with the situation in Africa, where the international community gives minimal attention and assistance to the refugee crisis. In 1999, UNHCR spent about $0.11 per refugee per day in Africa, compared with the average of $1.23 spent in the Balkans: ten times the amount spent on an African refugee.6

While resources are part of the problem, they are not the only problem. The international community needs to adopt a two-fold approach: 1) provide greater material assistance to African host governments; and 2) condemn abuses and advocate forcefully for policies and practices that uphold refugees' fundamental rights. UNHCR needs to play a more dynamic role as the promoter of solutions to the refugee problem. Camps are not the solution, particularly because the refugee camps in East African countries are generally located in underdeveloped and insecure areas close to the borders.

Before the 1990s, both Kenya and Tanzania had refugee policies that, for the most part, were geared toward local integration. This was consistent with UN General Assembly entreaties that states should seek "durable solutions" for refugees, including through assimilation and local integration. Local integration is one of the three durable solutions - along with voluntary return to the refugee's home country or resettlement in a third country - preferred and recommended by UNHCR. In fact, these governments allowed refugees to choose their residences freely, gave them work permits, and allowed refugee children to attend state schools.

Although the political and social context has changed, it is necessary to remind East African authorities of the positive aspects of their past experience with refugees, and to encourage them to revive such aspects in their present policies. Rather than acquiescing in the erosion of refugee rights, the international community should be promoting ways to return to more durable solutions. One important way to do so is to make international assistance and aid concretely available for programs that promote durable solutions. It is regrettable that international assistance for Kenya and Tanzania before the 1990s was negligible, and perhaps this was also a factor that finally contributed to the decision of the authorities to abandon this policy.


Given that current political conditions are likely to remain unfavorable for either local integration or repatriation, many refugees in East Africa are left with third-country resettlement as the only viable durable solution. Yet this option depends both on the West keeping its doors open and on UNHCR fulfilling its gatekeeper role by identifying and referring to competent national authorities an appropriate number of resettlement cases. Despite some recent improvements, resettlement remains concretely available to relatively few. The good news is that the United States, the largest resettlement country, exceeded its ceiling for 12,000 African refugee admissions last year, and has more than doubled the Africa ceiling from 7,000 in 1998 to 18,000 in FY 2000. The bad news is that this is still a drop in the bucket.

Recognizing that resettlement is not the appropriate solution for most of the continent's refugees, who do, indeed, have other options, there are still among the more than 3 million refugees in Africa (855,000 of whom are in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda), large numbers who are vulnerable in their countries of first asylum and who cannot repatriate. The principal limiting factor here is UNHCR. Although the United States and other resettlement countries have offered the places, UNHCR referrals lag behind. In many cases, this results from the lack of resources UNHCR devotes to the program. The U.S. program makes up the difference by resettling family reunion cases, based on affidavits of relationship filed by relatives in the United States. This is likely to account for the majority of the 18,000 refugee admissions from Africa this year.


It is time to reverse this downward spiral. African refugees are living with the uncertainty and fear that come with being subjected to arbitrary mistreatment and inadequate protection. The international community's neglect of Africa - a continent with more than six million refugees and internally displaced persons exacerbates this.

A sustainable solution requires that both host governments adopt policies and practices and that the international community uphold the rule of law and put an end to the indiscriminate mistreatment and lack of protection that refugees in East Africa currently face. It is acutely important for UNHCR and international donors to be strong advocates for policies that ensure scrupulous respect for all the rights to which refugees are legally entitled. Expediency and convenience afford no defense for the abrogation of human rights. Host governments should be called upon to end practices that violate the rights of refugees, and UNHCR should be taking the lead in this regard.

Even as UNHCR and donors call upon the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to respect the rights of refugees, they need to acknowledge that these governments face valid national security and border concerns, coupled with an increase in crime and banditry. UNHCR's defense of refugees will ring hollow if it does not take on the tough task of excluding militarily active elements from its guardianship. UNHCR's failure to screen and exclude combatants from true refugees is an abdication of its responsibility and undermines its credibility as the international protector of the refugee population.

Host governments in East Africa need to be given greater international assistance in order to adopt other steps to address security, such as increasing police patrols and surveillance of the border communities with high numbers of refugees, relocating refugee settlements farther away from the borders, and investigating and prosecuting those foreign nationals committing crimes. Each of these proposals would allow a more sustainable and rights-respecting security policy over the long term.

It is not enough for the international community only to condemn the violation of refugee rights. More constructive efforts are necessary to address the financial and administrative burden that such alternative security measures would pose to these countries' already overburdened judicial and law enforcement branches. Supporting the capacity of host countries to protect and assist refugees is the sine qua non that enables host governments to abandon policies and practices that violate refugee rights and to move toward durable solutions on their behalf.


1 This article is based on first-hand research and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with refugees, UNHCR staff, government officials, and others in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in the past year. The work of Human Rights Watch staff members Rachael Reilly, Suliman Baldo, and Juliane Kippenberg, as well as consultant Guglielmo Verdirame are gratefully acknowledged. Back to text

2 Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Mtendeli camp, Tanzania, June 2, 1998. Back to text

3 Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Nairobi, Kenya, April 4, 1999. Back to text

4 See also Guglielmo Verdirame, "Human Rights and Refugees: The Case of Kenya," Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1999. Back to text

5 Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Nduta camp, Tanzania, May 31, 1998. Back to text

6 Kenneth Roth, op-ed "Kosovars Aren't the Only Refugees," Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1999; T. Christian Miller and Ann M. Simmons, "Refugee Camps in Africa and Europe," Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1999; Thomas Chibale-Mabwe, "U.N.'s U.S.$0.11 Insult to African Refugees," Times of Zambia, July 16, 1999; and John Vidal, "Blacks Need, but only Whites Receive: Race Appears to be Skewing the West's Approach to Aid. Look at Kosovo. Then Look at Africa," Guardian, August 12, 1999. Back to text

Source: World Refugee Survey 2000