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Kenya's Somalis Face Urban Ejection

Kenyan authorities have demanded the return of Somali urban refugees to camps such as Dadaab. But will the controversial policy really improve internal security?
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Iftin Ahmed Farah, a Somali refugee in the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi. Photograph by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures.

Nairobi, Kenya:

Kenya has experienced a spate of terrorist attacks in some of its major towns and cities since the Kenya Defence Forces intervened in Somalia in October 2011. Following the army’s invasion to root out al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group – which had been dominant in southern and central Somalia – vowed to retaliate.

Over the last year, the group seems to have made real on its threats, claiming responsibility for a string of violent attacks in many parts of Kenya, especially Nairobi and the northern town of Garissa.

Explosions in Eastleigh

Most of the attacks in the capital Nairobi have occurred in Eastleigh, a residential and commercial estate predominantly populated by ethnic Somalis. In responding to the threat, the police has been accused of heavy handedness and targeting innocent citizens instead of carrying out genuine investigations and apprehending the real criminals.

Since October 24, 2011, when the first grenade attack occurred in a bar in downtown Nairobi, similar violent strikes have become more frequent. Many of the blasts towards the end of 2012 happened in Eastleigh. In November alone, three explosions rocked the area, the worst killing at least seven and leaving scores wounded after an explosive device was detonated on a minibus full of passengers.

In a grenade attack on December 7, also in Eastleigh, local MP Yusuf Hassan was among those targeted. The grenade was hurled at him and others as he walked out of Al Hidaya Mosque on Eastleigh’s Jam Street after evening prayers. The incident killed three, injuring the MP and several others.

Sending back Somalis

With attacks such as these on the increase, the Kenyan government has turned to radical measures. Somali urban refugees (who are mainly based in Nairobi) have predictably born the brunt. The government of Kenya has demanded that they all to go back to Dadaab, a settlement near the Somali border that hosts the largest refugee camp in the world.

In a press conference in December, Mutea Iringo, Kenya’s Internal Security Permanent Secretary, told reporters that most Somali refugees were illegally roaming the country instead of being at the refugee camps in which they are registered, and blamed them for the deteriorating security situation. “We will conduct countrywide operations to ensure all refugees are taken back to Dadaab”, he said.

This proposal has attracted a great deal of criticism, particularly from human rights organisations. In a press release on January 21, for example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concerns that “the plan would violate refugees’ free movement rights and would almost certainly involve the unlawful forced eviction of tens of thousands of refugees from their lodgings in the cities”.

In a news release on January 16, HRW then reported that the Ministry of Provincial Administration and Internal Security had written to the Ministry of Special Programmes, saying that the first phase of “rounding up” would “target” 18,000 people, starting on January 21. The letter said they would be taken to Thika Municipal Stadium, which would act as a “holding ground” pending transfer to the camps.

For many Somali urban refugees, however, the prospect of living in Dadaab is unpalatable. In the camps, refugees face insecurity, sexual violence, and police harassment. There is also a shortage of basic necessities, with many living in overcrowded, makeshift homes with little educational or health services. These conditions were what forced many refugees to escape the camps and move to urban areas in the first place. They moved to the city in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence.

Now, faced with the threat of return, there are already indications that Somali refugees are opting to return to their unstable homeland. “Reports from the Somali Embassy in Kenya, airline companies and aid workers on the Kenya-Somali border near the Dadaab camps say that since December over a thousand Somalis have returned to their country every week, either by air or overland”, claims the HRW news release.

An inside job

Aside from this resistance to return to Dadaab and the human rights problems a forced return would involve, it is highly questionable whether the policy would even end the terrorist attacks.

Firstly, the Kenyan police, supposedly responsible for implementing the process, seem incapable of moving urban refugees back to Dadaab due to inefficiency and corruption. Somali urban refugees have always ‘survived’ in the city by paying bribes, and there appears to be nothing to prevent them doing the same this time to remain in Nairobi and other cities. On being arrested or detained by the police, it is reasonable to assume that a good number of these refugees – including the criminal elements among them – will buy their freedom from corrupt policemen.

Furthermore, the refugees being targeted are not the only section of society causing unrest in Kenya, and even if their removal to Dadaab were feasible, it would be unlikely to guarantee Kenya’s security. There are other elements and actors involved. For example, Elgiva Bwire, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 for a grenade attack on a bus station, was not a Somali refugee but a Kenyan convert to Islam, who had been indoctrinated by al-Shabaab.

Ultimately, even if the government is determined to regard these urban refugees as a threat to Kenya’s security, there are other ways to resolve the issue than sending them back to Dadaab. One thing the government could do would be to demand all urban Somali refugees register with the local chief in their area. This way the daily activities of the urban refugees could be more closely understood and monitored, and insecurity perpetrated by them could be reduced if not eliminated.

Kenyan authorities are deluding themselves if they think forceful eviction of urban Somali refugees from towns and cities in Kenya to the Dadaab complex would help the security situation. Furthermore, enforcing this planned eviction would result in Kenya violating its international obligations to protect refugees under the 1951 United Nations Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention. Another altogether more intelligent and progressive solution needs to be reached.

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Comments

This is a nice and a well thought article