Breaking the Camel’s Back? Arresting and deporting Somali migrants

Kenya has experienced an increased number of Al-Shabab attacks since the 2011 deployment of its troops to Somalia. In September 2013, a shocking Al-Shabab assault on an upmarket shopping mall (Westgate) in Nairobi left at least 67 people dead and made global headlines throughout the siege. An enquiry following the Westgate attack recommended that refugee camps were hotbeds of militant fermentation and the time had come for refugees to go home.

Soon afterwards (March 2014) there were government calls for all refugees to return to camps – in reference to the fact that over 50,000 refugees (over 35,000 Somali) reside in urban centres in Kenya and many more undocumented (estimated as 150-200,000) migrants from Somalia have joined them. These groups are in addition to the 430,513 registered Somali refugees in the country.

Throughout 2013 there was vigorous discussion between Mogadishu, Nairobi, the UNHCR and various other organisations and stakeholders about the return of Somali refugees, whom Kenya has hosted, in some cases, for more than two decades. Although Kenyan political and public opinion may be increasingly turning against ethnic Somali refugees, international protection regimes that Kenya has ratified remain binding. Accordingly, the discussion resulted in the September 2013 Tripartite Agreement between the governments of Somalia and Kenya and the UNHCR which secures various conditions for the voluntary and ‘safe and dignified’ return to Somalia.

However, incidents appear to have overtaken these agreed provisions in a dramatic turn of events following recent lethal security incidents in late March and early April in Mombasa and Nairobi. The latest suicide bombing at a police station in central Nairobi on 23 April 23 resulted in a number of deaths including two policemen, prompting police chiefs to redouble their intentions to fight terrorism in the city.

Human Rights Watch have long written with alarm about the protection crisis facing Somalis both inside and outside refugee camps in four reports since 2009[1] and their latest statement (10 April 2014) claims that: ‘since April 2, almost 4,000 people are reported to have been arrested and detained in Nairobi and Mombasa….some of the detainees have been released after they produced identification documents, but only after days in deplorable detention conditions or after they paid bribes. On 9 April, the Kenyan authorities summarily deported 82 undocumented Somali nationals from the capital, Nairobi, to Somalia. Kenyan officials have said that they plan to deport all undocumented Somali nationals as part of the response to recent grenade and other attacks in Kenya by unidentified people.’ Human Rights Watch claim that they echo international donors and civil right organization as they call for an immediate end to the current unprecedented crackdown on Somalis, mainly in Nairobi (Eastliegh) and Mombasa.

These events are part of an increasingly troubled relationship between the Kenyan authorities and ethnic Somali migrants and refugees in which accusations of multiple abuses including rape, looting, beatings, arbitrary detention and police corruption have been leveled at the authorities in what the governments describes as legitimate attempts to root out criminals and terrorists and curtail irregular migration into the country. After years of tolerating and hosting large groups of Somalis refugees and turning a blind eye to the presence of unknown numbers of irregular, undocumented Somalis (mainly in urban centres), recent terrorist attacks have been the straws that may be breaking the proverbial camel’s back.

The tension between wanting to fulfil international obligations and upholding international human rights standards and being seen to act robustly to uphold security in Kenya has never been more stretched. The government insists that it has to act to end the violence and protect its citizens and in the security operation to identify terrorists they aim to empty the cities, and country, of irregular migrants. The discussion between whether this is a legitimate response to repeated acts of terror or whether it offers Kenya the pretext of expelling unwanted migrants (and refugees) escalates. Undoubtedly violent Islamic attacks are giving the government the political justification it needs to act with what may be regarded as emergency security power, where the vast majority of innocent Somali refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants will face harsh, summary, arbitrary and possibly illegal treatment because of the acts of a few.

[1] Human Rights Watch report, “’You are All Terrorists:’ Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi” (May 2013); Human Rights Watch report, “Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses Against Ethnic Somalis,” (May 2012); Human Rights Watch report, “Welcome to Kenya: Police Abuse of Somali Refugees” (June 2010); Human Rights Watch report, “From Horror to Hopelessness: Kenya’s Forgotten Somali Refugee Crisis” (May 2009).

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.