After a spate of grenade attacks linked to Somali Islamist militants over the past 14 months, Kenya has ordered all refugees in its urban areas to move to established refugee camps, which the government says is necessary for security but international organizations argue could violate the refugees' rights.
In a Dec. 13 measure seen as uniformly targeting Somali refugees, the government said it was ending urban stays for all refugees inside its border and the mandatory registration of any other refugee who enters the country henceforth. The Kenyan government advised the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other refugee organizations to cease, with immediate effect, the provision of services to all refugees in Kenyan cities and towns, and transfer them to Dadaab and Kakuma camps.
“We bring to an end of refugees living in urban areas. That will be followed by repatriation of the refugees back to Somalia,” Sora Katelo, the acting commissioner of refugee affairs in Kenya’s ministry of immigration, told a news conference on Thursday.
“Their legal documentation has ceased to function in urban areas. So if they continue staying in urban areas, they will be doing so illegally.”
700,000 refugees in Kenya
The Somali migrants are required to move to the town of Dadaab, which hosts the world’s largest refugee complex, near the Somali border. The expansive “city of tents” in northeastern Kenya is the home of over 500,000 people who fled war and hunger in their war-torn country.
The over-crowded Dadaab complex of three camps – Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera – also lacks enough services, and experiences serious security issues itself. A string of attacks involving explosives and guns have also occurred there, with the latest taking place on Friday near a voter registration center inside the camp.
International organizations working with refugees have criticized Kenya’s decision as a contradiction to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The groups say they have been negotiating with the government since Friday, with UNHCR, the lead agency, saying it hoped the rights of the 700,000 refugees in Kenya, most of whom are from Somalia, will be protected.
Kenya’s refugee policy requires all people migrating into the country live in established camps, but thousands of Somali refugees have been living in the capital, Nairobi, and towns like Garissa in the northeast. The government is believed to have made special exceptions for some to leave the camps in order to attend schools, seek medical attention, or join family members already living in cities across Kenya.
Government officials say the measure is necessary in order to avoid future violence and attacks, which have recently been on the rise. Officials say they are convinced Somali militants, including some refugees, are involved in the smuggling of explosives and weapons that are being used to attack security officers, civilians, religious centers, and aid workers in Kenya.
“We hope to arrive at a position where the government[’s] concerns are addressed and the rights of the refuges are protected,” says Emmanuel Nyabera, the UNHCR-Kenya spokesperson.
The attacks – which have targeted churches, the police, public transportation, and most recently, a mosque – have escalated since October 2011 when Kenya sent its troops into Somalia. Soon after troops entered the war torn country to pursue Al-Shabab, the Islamist militants threatened retaliatory attacks on Kenyans.
Analysts say the attacks are reminiscent of those enacted by Nigerian Islamist militants, Boko Haram. According to Maalim Mohammed, Garissa county commissioner, Al-Shabaab has offered $8,000 rewards for the killing of any Kenyan security officer.
“The higher the rank, the higher the pay,” Mr. Mohammed told citizens gathered for Independence Day celebrations on Dec. 12 in Garissa.
'Urge Kenya to reconsider'
In the latest attack, on Sunday, one person suffered injuries after a grenade was hurled from a speeding vehicle at a crowd outside Al-Hidaya Mosque in a Nairobi suburb.
This is the second time an attack has occurred near the mosque in Eastliegh, a suburb known as “Little Mogadishu” because of its large concentration of Somali refugees and Kenyans of the Somali tribe. An Anglican Church was attacked there in September, killing one child.
After a previous attack on the Al-Hidaya Mosque on Dec. 8, the police arrested nearly 600 Somali nationals who were in Nairobi without identification documents. These individuals were nearby when the attack took place and were deemed to be in the country illegally, thus they were treated as suspects in the attack, according to local police.
“It is not every Somali who is involved in the attacks. [The] majority are involved in genuine business, so we urge Kenya to reconsider [their policy] decision. Our children are also going to school here [in towns],” says Ahmed Abdi, a Somali refugee in Nairobi.
This policy comes on the heels of a previous request in September when President Mwai Kibaki appealed to the UN to relocate Somali refugees to areas liberated by African Union troops, providing humanitarian assistance to them while inside their home country of Somalia.