Kenyan police routinely abuse men, women, and children fleeing violence in Islamist-dominated Somalia and demand bribes to allow them to reach the safety of refugee camps, a report published Thursday claimed.
In interviews with more than 100 refugees, Human Rights Watch documented widespread harassment, violence and even rape carried out by Kenyan officers stationed close to the country’s closed border with Somalia.
Police use beatings, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, and threats of deportation or prosecution to squeeze bribes from many of the 10,000 people a month fleeing to Kenya from Somalia.
Hundreds who are unable to pay are sent home – against Kenyan and international law – according to the 99-page report.
Peter Kusimba, Kenya’s Commissioner for Refugee Affairs, said that he had never heard any reports of Somalis being harassed as they crossed into Kenya. He refused to comment further.
Somalia's weak government is locked in a guerrilla war with Islamist insurgents, known as Al Shebab, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians and forced more than 3.5 million from their homes.
“People fleeing the mayhem in Somalia – the vast majority are women and children – are welcomed to Kenya with rape, whippings, beatings, detention, extortion, and summary deportation,” says Gerry Simpson, the report’s principal author.
Kenya’s government closed its border with its volatile northern neighbor in 2007 as Islamist rebels later accused of links to Al Qaeda took control of Somalia. Kenyan officials have expressed concern that the fighting in Somalia might spread across the border.
Before that, the United Nations operated a refugee transit center at the border town of Liboi where Somalis were processed and screened for illnesses before being trucked to Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, which hosts almost 300,000 Somali refugees.
But now any foreigner found on the Kenyan side of the border’s unmarked boundary is considered an "unlawful presence," despite international laws allowing refugees 30 days to register with authorities.
Even if they pay the police bribes, when they reach the refugee camps the authorities are overwhelmed and unable adequately to monitor new arrivals.
“Once in the camps, some refugees face more police violence and the police turn a blind eye to sexual violence by other refugees and local Kenyans,” Mr Simpson says.
Similar allegations were raised in studies by Human Rights Watch and Oxfam last year. Again, as with Thursday’s report, both recommended that the border be reopened.
“We have regularly been discussing this with donor partners, and with the authorities here in Kenya, but as yet we are still waiting for action,” says Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesman for the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, in Nairobi.
Nairobi’s insistence that national security is paramount neutralizes attempst by Western diplomats to argue for action against Kenyan officers patrolling the border. “The government’s argument that the border must be closed for security reasons does not work,” says Alun McDonald, spokesman for Oxfam in Nairobi.
“It is not stopping Somalis getting into Kenya, meaning the closed border does not help security. But [the stance] still has a negative impact on the humanitarian situation of the refugees.”