Thousands of Somali refugees living in Nairobi are being forced to leave behind their homes and businesses as the government forcibly relocates them to overcrowded camps in the north or deports them to their war-torn home country in a misguided attempt to prevent future terrorism.
Approximately half a million Somalis fled to Kenya after their nation’s 1991 civil war. On June 30, Kenya’s highest court upheld a ruling that said deporting the entire refugee population of Nairobi in the name of national security was constitutional. Refugee community leaders were petitioning the court to review the new directive, which they claim violates basic human rights to work, property, and protection against discrimination under international law.
Over the past year, the Somalian terrorist group al Shabaab has shown itself to be more resilient than originally thought, wreaking havoc throughout Kenya. In the most notorious attack, the extremist Islamist group occupied Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last September, claiming hundreds of lives. Last month, al Shabaab fighters killed as many as 60 civilians in a rampage through Kenya’s coastal region, while the government first failed to respond and then blamed the attacks on opposition parties. Survivors of the attacks were enraged over the authorities’ slow response to the massacre. Evicted refugees argue that they are now being scapegoated within Kenya’s increasingly volatile political environment.
“The court has vindicated us. We can now go on with what we started– moving the refugees to the camps,” said Cabinet Secretary of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government Joseph Ole Lenku, who originally ordered the deportations in late March. He made clear that the relocation will not be temporary. “Ensuring that the refugees are in their designated camps is the beginning. The next move is to close the camps, and I reiterate that the refugee camps have outlived their purpose,” he said, explaining that “the camps are now training bases for terrorists and launching pads for attacks on innocent Kenyans.”
The sudden forced relocation has left no aspect of the refugees’ lives untouched. Business leaders among the petitioners were dismayed to find that they had just weeks or even days to sell their businesses, forcing them to abandon their stores and accept below market prices. Another refugee worries for his grandmother, who suffers from kidney failure and, like many others recently deported to the camps, is barred from leaving to receive medical treatment. While the recent court ruling paves the way for an escalation in deportations, the campaign to quarantine Somali refugees has been going on for months. In April, police arrested 4,000 Somalis, leaving children as young as three months old to fend for themselves according to a Nairobi-based charity.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refused to condemn the deportations outright. “UNHCR is not against the urban refugees being moved to the camps, but we want some considerations to be made including [for] health issues, the livelihoods of refugees and education of refugee children in urban areas,” said a spokesperson for the organization. Amnesty International, on the other hand, severely rebuked Kenya’s government. “Using the pretext of protecting national security, the Kenyan authorities have cracked down on refugees, effectively destroying any form of stability they may have managed to build after seeking refuge in Kenya,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Eastern Africa.
Amnesty pointed out that the very same judge who upheld the deportation law ruled last July that forcibly relocating refugees to camps would violate fundamental human rights and risk indirectly forcing them to return to Somalia. High Court Judge Justice Majanja also previously rejected the law on the grounds that the government had not demonstrated pushing Somali refugees into camps would improve national security. While the government has still not provided any proof this is true, Justice Manjanja did not call attention to this glaring inconsistency. The Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya — the world’s largest — where many of the Somali refugees are being sent, is known for chronic shortages of food and security. The new wave of arrivals to the camp, this time coming from within Kenya’s borders, is sure to add further stress to the camp’s already limited resources.
Some analysts argue al Shabaab’s attacks on “soft targets,” such as Kenya’s malls and villages, are part of a larger plan by the group to push the government to retaliate against the Somali refugee population. Al Shabaab figures Kenya’s Somali population, increasingly alienated by government persecution, will provide them with the revival of support they sorely need. According to this logic, the jihadi group has been losing ground in Somalia over the past two years and is looking to expand its support, and export its conflict, to neighboring Kenya. Following this line of thought, the government’s decision to enact punitive legislation against Somalis who have lived in Nairobi for years could actually significantly undermine Kenya’s national security interests.
Hussein Mohamed Haji, chairman of the community association in a Nairobi suburb with a large Somali refugee population, gave voice to the devastating impact of the mass deportations. “In 2006, we were welcomed in Kenya and given alien cards. We were told by immigration that the only thing we could not do in Kenya was to vote or be voted for. We opened banks, we started businesses and some of us bought property. How can we go to the camps, and how can we run our businesses if we are forced to the camps? We just don’t know what do to.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.