POLITICS-SOMALIA: Refugees Suffering in Kenyan Camps

  • by Joyce Mulama (nairobi)
  • Tuesday, March 31, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Fleeing insurgent attacks on her home town of Afmadow in southern Somalia, she walked for three days with two companions to a border crossing, where Kenyan police were to let them into the country, on condition that they parted with the equivalent of 50 dollars each.

Yusuf, who later made her way to Nairobi, spoke with IPS on Mar. 30 outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices where she had gone to seek registration for her and son’s refugee status. 'I had the money which I gave to the police and they allowed me in. One of the other two people I travelled with did not have the full amount so the police detained him. The other had nothing and he was forcibly retuned to Somalia,' she recounted.

'We pleaded with the police not to take him back to a place of war and they refused to listen. They told us to shut up or we would also be deported,' she added.

Yusuf’s remarks are reflective of findings of a Human Rights Watch report which accuses the Kenyan police force of manhandling Somali asylum seekers. The document, From Horror to Hopelessness: Kenya’s Forgotten Somali Refugee Crisis, highlights acts of extortion, detention, brutal violence and widespread detention faced by thousands of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya.

'Kenyan police detain new arrivals, seek bribes - sometimes using threats and violence including sexual violence- and deport back to Somalia those unable to pay. This is a violation of Kenya’s fundamental obligations under international and Kenyan refugee law,' says part of the report.

'People escaping violence in Somalia need protection and help, but instead face more danger, abuse and deprivation. What the police are doing sends a clear message that Somali refugees are not wanted in Kenya,' Gerry Simpson, HRW’s refugee researcher told journalists at the Mar. 30 launch of the report in Nairobi.

Abuse by the police, HRW says, has intensified since closure of the 1,200 kilometre border between Kenya and Somalia in 2007. Kenyan authorities took that action days after Ethiopian forces intervened to oust an Islamist movement that has captured most of southern Somalia. Kenya justified the closure as a security measure aimed at preventing the insurgents from fleeing onto its ground.

HRW now wants Kenyan police investigated for claims of corruption, detention, deportation, and abuse against a deluge of asylum seekers fleeing fighting between the Somali government and Al-Shabaab militia seeking to overthrow it.

But the police have dismissed the allegations by HRW as false. 'If there are any references out there of police manhandling people, let them be brought to us. We have not received any complaints. How can we react to rumours?' Charles Owino, deputy police spokesman told IPS.

Shutting the border has not deterred a mass arrival of refugees from entering Kenya. HRW claims thousands of Somalis are using smuggling networks - working hand in hand with extortionist police officers - to cross into Kenyan camps secretly.

Following the border closure, the UNHCR closed its refugee transit centre in Liboi, where new refugees previously registered and had health checks before transportation to refugee camps.

The three refugee settlements in Dadaab, in northern Kenya have witnessed an influx of new arrivals. The Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley camps which have a capacity of 90,000 are now holding 260,000 refugees, according to Emmanuel Nyabera, the UNHCR’s spokesperson. The agency estimates that that the camp could have up to 360,000 refugees by end of this year.

New refugees are sharing cramped tents with their relatives or strangers. Some have put makeshift up shelter under trees.

There are fears of humanitarian crisis if the trend continues. 'As we continue having more and more people, we will not cope with keeping up with the standards,' Nyabera told IPS. Besides the shortage of shelter, there are problems with sanitation.

An Oxfam International report released Mar. 26 says cholera is already present and a serious outbreak remains a real risk in Dadaab. 'The ever increasing overcrowding, poor sanitation and waste disposal facilities as well as the lack of investment in hygiene promotion are exacerbating the risk,' it says.

Human Rights Watch is now calling on the Kenyan government to provide land to build a new camp to accommodate 100,000 refugees, adding its voice to UNICEF, UNHCR and World Food Programme, which last November, asked authorities to help ease the congestion.

A senior official in the lands ministry told IPS that the matter was under discussion between government and local communities. But locals are not enthusiastic about the idea, citing conflict with the refugees over resources. Both groups keep livestock and have often clashed over grazing lands. In addition, locals accuse the refugees of damaging the environment by felling trees for firewood.

Prospects of a deal on land being reached soon are very small.

Meanwhile, more refugees like Yusuf continue to flee a conflict that has left about one million people homeless and much of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital deserted, according to HRW. Once granted refugee status, Yusuf will be expected to go to Dadaab according to Kenyan legislation that requires refugees to reside in camps (either Dadaab - mostly housing refugees from Somalia, or Kakuma - which hosts majority of refugees from Sudan).

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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