Unlawful Transfer Plan to Begin January 21, Could Provoke Conflict
(Nairobi, January 21, 2013) – The Kenyan authorities should halt their plan to forcibly move 55,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from cities to overcrowded and underserviced refugee camps, Human Rights Watch said today. Citing a number of grenade attacks in 2012, the authorities contend the move will improve Kenyan national security and lead to the return of Somali refugees to Somalia.
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, Human Rights Watch said. The longstanding humanitarian crisis in Kenya’s refugee camps also means the relocation would affect refugees’ ability to make a living and unlawfully reduce their access to adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, and education.
“Kenya is using the recent grenade attacks to stigmatize all refugees as potential terrorists and to force tens of thousands of them into appalling living conditions in already severely overcrowded camps,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch. “The plan to forcibly transfer tens of thousands of people from the cities to camps is unlawful and will cause extreme hardship.”
In a December 13 news release, the Kenyan authorities said the transfer of urban refugees to the camps responds to a series of attacks in which unidentified people threw hand-grenades into crowds in various locations, killing and injuring a number of people, including police officers and soldiers.
On January 16, 2013, the Ministry of Provincial Administration and Internal Security wrote to the Ministry of Special Programs saying the first phase of “rounding” up refugees would “target” 18,000 people and would start on January 21. The letter said they would be taken to Nairobi’s Thika Municipal Stadium, which would act as a “holding ground” pending transfer to the camps.
Organizations and lawyers working with refugees in Nairobi say that since December, police in Nairobi have arrested dozens of Somalis on spurious charges of belonging to terrorist organizations. All of those taken to court have been released for lack of evidence.
In May, Human Rights Watch reported on serious abuses by security officers in northern Kenya against civilians following some of the grenade attacks that killed security officers. In response to the report, the Kenyan military promised to end such violent reprisals and formed a committee to investigate the abuses. Human Rights Watch is concerned that security forces would again use violence while arresting and forcibly transferring refugees to the camps.
The plan, if implemented, would violate Kenya’s international and national legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said. These obligations require Kenya to show that any free movement restrictions must be the least restrictive measure possible to address Kenya’s national security concerns.
Human Rights Watch’s June 2010 report, “Welcome to Kenya,” concluded that Kenya’s requirements that half a million refugees live in closed camps – which only a few thousand may temporarily leave each year under special circumstances – violated its legal obligations to guarantee refugees’ freedom of movement.
“Kenya’s plan to move 55,000 refugees into camps is clearly an unnecessary and disproportionate response to the recent attacks,” Simpson said. “Kenya should not just brand all refugees a security risk and walk all over the rights of 55,000 people.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2012, 46,540 registered urban refugees were living in Kenya, including 33,246 Somalis. In addition, 6,832 registered urban asylum seekers from a variety of nationalities, including 447 Somalis, were living in Kenya.
On December 13, Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) released a press statement to the news media announcing the authorities’ plan to “put in place a structure encampment policy” because of an “unbearable and uncontrollable threat to national security” caused by “grenade attacks in our streets, churches, buses and business places” that have “killed and … injured … many people.”
It said that all asylum seekers and refugees from Somalia in Kenya’s urban areas should move to the Dadaab refugee camps near the Somali border and that all urban asylum seekers and refugees from other countries should move to the Kakuma refugee camp, near the Sudan border. It said that registration of asylum seekers and refugees in urban areas had been stopped, that all registration centers had been closed, and that UNHCR and other agencies serving asylum seekers and refugees should stop providing all direct services to refugees.
At a December 13 news conference, Kenya’s acting commissioner for refugee affairs, Badu Katelo, said that urban refugees’ and asylum seekers’ “documentation has ceased to function in the urban areas and if they will continue staying in the urban areas they will be staying illegally -- and that [arresting and removing them from the cities] is a function of another department of government, probably police and immigration.”
Since December, UNHCR and other organizations have asked the Kenyan authorities for a copy of the directive on which the December 13 news statement is based, but the authorities have refused to issue a copy.
Since the plan was announced, non-governmental organizations and refugee lawyers in Nairobi say the police in Nairobi have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Somali nationals, most of whom have been released after paying hefty bribes. 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 over land. Some told aid workers in Somalia they left because they feared a crackdown against Somali refugees in Kenya.
Human Rights Watch has also received reports of a significant increase since late December in sexual violence against refugee women and girls in one of the Dadaab camps, “Ifo 2.”A reliable source told Human Rights Watch that the police have failed to respond adequately to the attacks, which refugees say has led to a general fear of insecurity that has caused hundreds of refugees to leave the camps and cross into Somalia. Others have relocated to the edge of other camps near Dadaab. In 2010, Human Rights Watch reported on longstanding Kenyan police failures to investigate sexual violence in the Dadaab camps.
At the December 13 news conference, Commissioner Katelo said that the refugees’ relocation to the camps would “closely be followed by repatriation of Somali refugees back to Somalia.” On December 21, President Mwai Kibaki said that “There is no dignity in living in refugee camps” and that Somalia and Kenya would “work together to enable the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who are living in refugee camps to return to their homes.”
Human Rights Watch said the situation in south-central Somalia remains insecure and that any steps by Kenyan authorities to force or otherwise encourage Somalis to return to their country would breach Kenyan and international law, which forbids the forcible return of refugees to persecution, torture, or situations of generalized violence.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Dadaab camps – where at least 450,000 refugees are crammed into space meant for 170,000 – and the lack of properly developed new camps there or near the Kakuma camps means any transfer of refugees from the cities to the camps would also breach Kenya’s international legal obligations. They require Kenya not to adopt “retrogressive measures” that would negatively affect refugees’ rights to adequate standard of living – including food, clothing and housing – and to health and education.
On December 28, Doctors Without Borders, which runs numerous health care programs in the camps, said that in light of “completely overstretched assistance” in the camps, the “medical and humanitarian situation” of the refugees in Dadaab was already “disastrous,” “dire,” and “precarious” and that the organization was “concerned about the medical consequences [of] a new influx of refugees” on the camp population.
Human Rights Watch also said that arbitrarily forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes in the cities would amount to forced evictions, unlawful under international law.
Human Rights Watch called on foreign donors to Kenya and on UNHCR to oppose the relocation plan, based on its inevitable violation of refugees’ rights to free movement, basic social and economic rights, and the right not to be forcibly evicted.
“This plan would ride roughshod over a range of refugees’ fundamental rights and enforcing it could well precipitate the very insecurity Kenya says it’s trying to prevent,” Simpson said. “Foreign donors to Kenya and UNHCR should encourage Kenya to abandon the plan.”