Sir John Holmes is Director of the Ditchley Foundation, a Trustee of the International Rescue Committee UK and a former UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs
Amid the hustle and bustle of Nairobi’s traffic-choked neighbourhoods, the rumble of the country’s tanks rolling into Somalia hundreds of miles away may only be a faint echo. But for the tens of thousands of Somali refugees trying to scrape a living in the city, Kenya’s military offensive against the Al-Shabaab rebel group across its troubled border holds the threat of more immediate and serious consequences.
For Nairobi’s estimated 120,000 refugees, most of them Somali, life is hard enough at the best of times. The vibrant city offers them freedom of movement and opportunities to make a living independently that are unthinkable for refugees living in camps. But they also face a host of challenges. Reluctant as many are to come forward for fear of being deported or sent to camps, they often lack the necessary documentation to find regular employment or access basic services such as health care and education. Police harassment can be a serious problem, with officers extorting money and locking up those who cannot or will not pay
With overcrowding and insecurity making the Dadaab refugee camps an increasingly unattractive alternative, a growing number of those who have fled the double calamity of conflict and famine in Somalia prefer to brave the uncertainties of Nairobi and other cities. Although it’s more difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach refugees in urban settings, some help is nonetheless at hand. As I saw on a recent visit to the Kenyan capital, the work of organisations like the International Rescue Committee and their local partners is helping by providing free legal advice, training the police and judicial authorities on refugee law, running language training and offering livelihood projects, including savings and loans schemes.
Yet, for all their good work, there will be little NGOs can do to help if the attitude of government and public towards the refugees deteriorates. Kenyans have generally been remarkably hospitable so far, and xenophobic reactions few, but there are signs that the welcome is under growing strain. A string of kidnappings, bomb attacks and cross-border incursions by Al-Shabaab rebels has stoked suspicion and hostility, and led to a strong security response. Since the country’s troops crossed into Somalia in November last year with the aim of dealing with the Islamist rebels in their lairs, police round-ups of Somali refugees have increased, and the jumpy public mood has led to incidents such as people rushing off a bus at the sight of two Somalis boarding it.
These developments could be a harbinger of much worse to come. If Al-Shabaab were to carry out their threat to mount more serious terrorist attacks than hitherto in Nairobi or elsewhere, particularly the suicide attacks against civilians for which they have become notorious in Mogadishu, the Kenyan reaction, both officially and from public opinion, could be emotional and strong. Somali refugees would become an easy target towards which public anger could be channelled, no matter how unfairly. Expulsions from Nairobi are not to be ruled out, or even closures of camps in the north to drive the refugees back across the border, on the pretext that a zone in Somalia has now been made safe. The latter proposal has been floated on more than one occasion by figures close to the Kenyan government; and the authorities I met on my recent trip did little to conceal the possibility of such a response.
As ministers and top diplomats gather in London on Thursday to discuss the future of Somalia, concerns for the safety of refugees are all too likely to be drowned out by talk of military and political solutions to the conflict, and worries about terrorism and piracy. But the principles at stake are vital, including the responsibilities of refugee-receiving states and the requirement for consultation and consent before any refugees can be sent back to their country. These principles must not be forgotten - governments and humanitarian organisations alike have a responsibility to defend them, as well as preparing to respond practically in case the worst fears come true. A new human and humanitarian disaster is the last thing the region needs.