NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Kenyan government plans to round up urban refugees and transport them to camps are illegal and have led to a surge in xenophobic attacks, rights groups said on Tuesday.
Previously, refugees who could support themselves or were in need of specialised education or medical care were allowed to live in urban areas.
However, that has changed after the east African nation experienced a spate of violent attacks, mostly in the capital and close to the Somali border, since it sent soldiers into its anarchic neighbour in 2011 to drive out Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda.
“Kenya is using the recent grenade attacks to stigmatise all refugees as potential terrorists and to force tens of thousands of them into appalling living conditions in already severely overcrowded camps,” Gerry Simpson, a refugee advocate with Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
HRW condemned the relocation plan as unlawful and said that it would cause “extreme hardship.”
On January 16, the government announced that it would start relocating an estimated 100,000 urban refugees to refugee camps as it blames Somali militants living among them for a wave of bombings, shootings and hand-grenade attacks in Kenya. The plan was initially announced in December.
“The first phase, which is targeting 18,000 persons will commence on 21 January 2013,” a senior civil servant in the ministry of provincial administration and internal security wrote in a January 16 letter to the ministry for special programmes, which oversees humanitarian programmes.
The letter said security officers would start by rounding up refugees and transporting them about 40 km outside Nairobi to Thika Municipal Stadium, which will act as a holding ground until arrangements to move them to the camps are finalised.
Somali refugees are required to be housed at Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, close to the Somali border, 500 km from the capital. All other refugees must reside at Kakuma, another remote camp located near Kenya's frontier with South Sudan.
Kenya hosts more than 525,000 Somali refugees, the majority in Dadaab, which is severely overcrowded, holding four times the population it was built for.
There are more than 55,000 registered refugees in Nairobi, though there are believed to be thousands more undocumented refugees, some of whom have lived in Kenya for more than 20 years.
RISE IN XENOPHOBIA
The recent spate of violence has spurred a rise in xenophobia against Somalis. In November, street battles erupted between Kenyans and ethnic Somalis in Eastleigh, a part of Nairobi commonly dubbed “Little Mogadishu” because of its large Somali population, after a bomb on a minibus killed seven people in the area.
“Since the Kenyan government announced this directive that all refugees should move to the camps, we have seen a dramatic increase in attacks on Somali refugees and Kenyans of Somali origin in Nairobi,” said Lucy Kiama, executive director of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya.
“We have also seen an increase in police round ups, extortion and harassment of refugees.”
Rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of harassment and abuse perpetrated by criminals and police officers.
Yet there is no evidence of Somali refugee involvement in the bomb attacks, said Anne Wambugu, country director for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which provides protection to refugees.
“We have not heard that any of the refugees has actually thrown any of the grenades or attacked anybody,” she said, asking the government to share any intelligence reports that it has showing that refugees are behind the blasts.
SIMPLY DUMPING REFUGEES?
The letter to the ministry for special programmes said the refugees would be held for a maximum of two days in Thika stadium, and asked the ministry to provide them with food, water and tents.
Still, such a movement of refugees requires extensive logistical groundwork, said Jerotich Seii Houlding, country director of the International Rescue Committee.
“This is not a simple case of swooping, putting them on buses and dumping them in Dadaab,” Houlding said.
“There has to be a lot of preparation and planning for the safe reception and provision of services to the refugees when they arrive... Whether it’s a two-day transit in Thika, or a direct movement to Dadaab or Kakuma, it is always going to be the women and children who will suffer.”