Following a series of grenade attacks in Nairobi and near the border with Somalia, the government of Kenya has announced a new policy requiring all refugees living in urban areas to relocate to camps. In a statement on December 13, the government described the move as a response to the “unbearable and uncontrollable threat to national security.”
Since the release of the press statement, Kenyan NGOs have reported a “dramatic increase in attacks on refugees and Kenyans of ethnic Somali origin,” including an increase in harassment, arbitrary arrests and extortion by police officers. Two Cabinet ministers have threatened to quit the government in protest of the harassment of the Somali community. Some refugees are preparing to return to Mogadishu despite the dangers they may face there.
Under this new policy, 56,000 asylum seekers and refugees—many of whom have lived in the country for years—will have to move to the already overcrowded camps at Dadaab near the Somali border and Kakuma in the northwest. According to aid workers, conditions in the Dadaab camps are poor and humanitarian assistance is insufficient. Kenyan NGOs have approached the country’s High Court to try to halt the move.
Even prior to these developments, local human rights groups had raised concerns over increasing xenophobia. Since Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia against Al-Shabaab in October 2011, Somalis in Kenya say they have been increasingly associated by politicians and the public with Al-Shabaab. In September last year, a mob attacked Somalis living near the site of a grenade attack on a church in Eastleigh, and in November after a grenade attack on a minibus, riots broke out in Eastleigh as Kenyan youths chanting “Somalis must go!” attacked ethnic Somalis and their shops and property.
The stigmatization of Somalis has been reinforced by senior government officials such as the Permanent Secretary of Internal Security who has blamed refugees for the grenade attacks and for the increase in crime in cities. The Prime Minister too has reportedly called for Somali refugees to be sent home.
As it seeks to address legitimate national security concerns, the government of Kenya has international obligations to protect refugees as well as its citizens from violence and discrimination. And in anticipation of elections next month, the government needs to take measures to prevent violence against refugees and Kenyans of Somali descent alongside efforts to prevent a repeat of previous election violence.
Human Rights First has identified a number of steps that states, UNHCR, NGOs and others can take to prevent and respond to xenophobic violence, many of which are relevant to Kenya. In addition to raising concerns about the new encampment policy and its implications for refugee protection, the U.S. State Department can play an important role in helping protect refugees from xenophobic violence and should:
- Raise concerns in bilateral discussions regarding xenophobic violence and encourage Kenyan officials to speak out against xenophobia and violence, condemn incidents when they occur, desist from making public statements that may fuel xenophobic sentiments, and arrest and prosecute perpetrators.
- Support UNHCR and NGOs to document incidents of xenophobic violence and other abuses in order to hold perpetrators accountable.