Turning the Screw on Nairobi’s Refugees

By Mark Yarnell, Senior Advocate from Refugees International

Driving east of downtown Nairobi, the paved road gives way to packed dirt. Our driver navigates the deep potholes, piles of garbage, and stagnant puddles. My RI colleague, Alice Thomas, and I are entering Eastleigh, otherwise known as “little Mogadishu” due to the high concentration of Somali refugees who live here. Many have been here since the early 1990s when war broke out in Somalia. Over the past two decades, they have been joined by thousands more who have fled continued conflict, persecution, and recurrent drought.

Tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia and elsewhere live in urban centers throughout Kenya, where they are able to provide for themselves, send their children to local schools, and access health facilities. Over the years, Nairobi’s Eastleigh developed into one of the most dynamic parts of Nairobi’s economy, with shoppers going there from all over the city to take advantage of the competitive prices and range of goods available there. It is a far cry from life in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in arid northeastern Kenya, where over 350,000 Somalis live in tents provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and remain dependent on monthly food rations.

However these days, the streets of Eastleigh are unusually quiet. In March, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Interior ordered, on the grounds of ‘emerging security challenges in our urban centers,’ all refugees to report to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. This coincided with the launch of a security operation known as Operation Usalama Watch (also officially known as “Operation Sanitization of Eastleigh”), designed to flush out members of Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist group that has claimed credit for attacks in Kenya. The underlying (or maybe overlying!) message from the government: refugees equal terrorists.

The tragedy is that many of the people living in Eastleigh fled to escape violence and persecution inside Somalia. Many were granted permission to reside in urban areas by UNHCR and the Kenyan Department of Refugees Affairs. Now, however, they face daily abuse and harassment by the Kenyan police who are using the encampment directive and the security crackdown as a means to extort money from Somali refugees on a daily basis.

We meet with a group of Somali refugees in an undisclosed location. Even being seen with westerners could put them at risk of abuse and detention by Kenyan police who lurk in the area. One young woman who declines to give her name tells us how she came to Nairobi in 2011 after her husband and father were killed in Mogadishu. She makes a living selling vegetables on the side of the road – but has to run and hide inside her apartment whenever she sees police on the street, fearful they will arrest her or demand a bribe to maintain her freedom. She says she is here in Nairobi because in the camps there is not enough food to feed her five children, and here they can go to school.

She is accompanied by an older woman who has lived in Eastleigh since the start of civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s. During Operation Usalama Watch, she says, police broke into her home and arrested her son. Over the next two months, he was moved from police station to police station. She had to pay bribes just to ensure he was fed. A month-and-a-half ago, she went to the police station and was told her son had been transported to the Kakuma refugee camp in remote northern Kenya. When she last spoke to him two weeks ago, she told him that he would have to find his own way; that she had to take care of her other children. Now she doesn’t know when she’ll see her son again.

One of the refugees we meet is disabled and in need of medical care. He shows us the open sores on his legs. A week ago, he tells us, he was stopped by a plain-clothed policeman while making his way to the hospital. He presented his refugee certification card but the policeman said he must pay 5000 Kenyan shillings (about 55 USD) or he’d be taken to a police station. He cannot go to the camps, he tells us, because he cannot get proper medical treatment there.

Abuse and extortion of Somali refugees by Kenyan police is not new. In fact, police have long referred to Somalis as ATMs. But if the government’s intention with this recent crackdown on Somali refugees was to enforce its new refugee encampment policy, or to take action against terrorist elements, that is not what is unfolding. Rather, the directive and Operation Usalama Watch gave police greater leverage to demand higher and higher bribes from refugees who were previously told they could live lawfully in Nairobi. We were told that it usually costs around 40,000 to 50,000 Kenyan shillings (equivalent to about 450 to 550 USD) to pay for the release of a Somali who has been taken to prison. As one of the refugees remarked to us, they are not only being treated like ATMs, but like goats who must be purchased to be released.

The broader issue of whether refugees in Kenya should be afforded greater freedom of movement and not confined to camps is a contentious one. Kenya’s High Court has released contradictory judgments on the issue, and the Kenyan Parliament is expected soon to take up a revision of the Refugee Act of 2006 which may alter Kenyan law to make an encampment policy more stringent. Rather than publicly defending the rights of urban refugees, UNHCR, which launched an Urban Refugee Policy in 2009, has chosen to pursue an approach of private diplomacy with Kenyan officials. Whether that strategy is proving effective is debatable – especially since, in addition to the myriad rights abuses, several certified refugees have even been sent back involuntarily to Mogadishu, a breach of the most fundamental of refugee rights.

But what cannot be debated is the pervasive abuse of refugees by Kenyan police. In a positive development, Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), created in 2011 by an Act of Parliament, just released a scathing report which details the range of human rights violations and constitutional breaches that occurred during Operation Usalama Watch.  The report outlines deplorable conditions in detention centers, allegations of bribery, long-term detention without an appearance before a court, and concerns about ethnic profiling.

The IPOA intends to pursue investigations of allegations against individual police officers – but in a context of such deep-rooted corruption, the challenge will be holding guilty parties to account. For now, refugees in Eastleigh will continue to try to live their lives as normally as possible, taking whatever measures they can to avoid encounters with the police, while their futures remain in limbo.

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