International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Kenya: Refugees under suspicion, ordered into camps

Update: A Jan. 23 Kenyan High Court ruling has temporarily halted the move of refugees in urban areas into camps

By Jerotich Seii Houlding, International Rescue Committee country director in Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya—When she learned last month that all refugees in Kenya’s cities were being ordered to relocate to camps hundreds of miles away, Mariam met the news with disbelief. An elderly Somali woman living in Nairobi, Mariam had struggled to make a new home for herself and her three grandchildren in the Kenyan capital following the death of their parents in violence-ravaged Somalia. “I have no idea how I am expected to start a new life in a refugee camp at my age,” she says.

Kenya has hosted refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia since the early 1990s. According to the United Nations refugee agency, there are about 650,000 refugees in the country. Most live in two camps—Dadaab in northeastern Kenya and Kakuma in the northwest—where they receive support from the UN and its partner aid organizations, including the International Rescue Committee. 

Some refugees, like Mariam, opt to reside in urban areas.  Their reasons are numerous: Some hope to get the specialized medical care they need; others to take advantage of job and educational opportunities in cities; still others try to blend into crowds to hide from security agents of the regimes they fled. It’s hard to measure precisely how many urban refugees currently reside in Kenya, but according to an August 2012 UN count, 55,000 were living in Nairobi alone.

Refugees Under Suspicion

The Kenyan government’s Dec. 18 directive ordering refugees into the camps followed a series of grenade attacks in Eastleigh, a largely immigrant neighborhood of Nairobi. The government has linked the attacks to sympathizers of Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and has erroneously accused refugees of the violence.
Since the directive was issued, many incidents of police harassment, extortion and arbitrary arrest involving refugees have been reported. One refugee, a man named Abdulahi, told the IRC that his 19-year-old son was arrested on Jan. 13 when police stormed their house in Eastleigh. The family had to raise 10,000 Kenyan shillings (about $120 U.S.) to secure his release. Such bribes are not uncommon. “Eastleigh has become an ATM” to the police, says Farah Maalim, deputy speaker of the Kenya National Assembly, the country’s legislative body.

The IRC is concerned about these incidents of human rights abuses and the coerced relocation of Somali refugees, practices that violate international humanitarian law, the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, and Kenya’s own constitution and laws.

Refugee Camps Overwhelmed

Not only has the directive disrupted the lives of many refugees in Nairobi, it also poses an enormous challenge for already overcrowded refugee camps. The government is ordering all Somali refugees to move to Kambioos, an unofficial camp on the fringe of the Dadaab refugee complex. Kambioos lacks the most basic services: clean water and sanitation, health care, schools, security guards. Its 17,000 inhabitants must travel more than 10 miles round trip to collect food from a neighboring camp. It’s hard to imagine how this fragile community will be able to absorb newcomers expelled from the cities by suspicious authorities.

Refugees’ Human Rights at Risk

Refugees are not terrorists. The IRC will continue to work tirelessly alongside our partners in the Urban Refugee Protection Network to promote their right to live without fear of victimization. Together we issued a press statement on Jan. 22 calling on the Kenyan government to bring to an end abuses against refugees. We have also lodged a case in Kenya’s High Court challenging the Dec. 18 directive itself. While that directive stands, we trust that the government will ensure that it is carried out in a manner that protects the rights of the most vulnerable—refugees like Mariam, Abdulahi and their families.

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