Op-ed: Cornered refugees pay for failed national and regional policies

This last year has seen several refugee crises unfold globally, made worse by governments’ unwillingness to act. Sub-Saharan Africa includes five of the top-ten countries people are fleeing from, and four of the top-ten countries with refugee populations.

Dealing with refugees requires a multifaceted approach that protects people who have fled persecution, including by not returning them to the situations from which they have fled. It also requires proactive engagement to resolve situations that fuel refugee outflows. Kenya hosts one of the largest refugee populations on the continent and has a role to play in both regards.

Kenya bears a heavy burden, because other countries have not met their responsibilities to help them cope with the refugee population. The World Food Programme has reduced food rations for refugees by 30 per cent for the second time since 2014, because of lack of funding.

However, Kenya itself is increasingly hostile to refugees, ignoring its obligations under international and regional treaties.


Refugees, especially Somali refugees, have proved a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention away from Kenya’s failure to effectively deal with the ever-increasing security threat posed by Al-Shabaab.

In this, Kenya appears committed to a plan to forcibly repatriate all Somali refugees – regardless of the situation that prevails in Somalia. The notion that Somali refugees can – and should – be repatriated was first articulated in the 2013 Tripartite Agreement on Voluntary returns signed between Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR.

Following the attack on Garissa University in which 147 students were killed and 79 others injured by Al-Shabaab, influential government figures, including the deputy president, have increased calls to close Daadab because it is a “breeding ground for Al-Shabaab” and to forcibly repatriate Somali refugees.

There is a lack of evidence to support the Kenyan government’s reasoning that Somali refugees in particular are responsible for increased insecurity. It shifts attention from legitimate questions about the security response.

Operation Usalama Watch, launched in April 2014, implemented forced encampment and saw the repatriation of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers. It was instituted following a series of attacks in Mombasa, but did nothing to prevent the Mpeketoni attack. Many refugees reported being harassed, arbitrarily detained, beaten, having their registration papers torn up and being subjected to extortion from the police during the operation.

One year on, there hasn’t been a single successful prosecution for the 2014 attacks at the coast, with the state dropping most cases for lack of evidence.

The violations against the refugee community have been counter-productive for Kenya’s counter-terrorism operations. Some refugee communities in Eastleigh were asked recently whether they would report to the police if they had information on Al-Shabaab. They said they would not.

Inadequate response

Kenya’s response to those seeking refuge is inadequate. It is ever more difficult for refugees to access asylum, their movement is restricted, and the ever present threat of repatriation makes it impossible for them to live in dignity in this country.

The previous director for immigration issued an internal memo to all border control points in February 2015 requiring refugees to seek asylum in their first country of call, negatively affecting people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Djibouti trying to seek asylum in Kenya. South Sudanese nationals have been charged visa fees at Nandapal border despite the government recognising them as prima facie refugees.

It is difficult to access the process through which a person gets refugee status and can benefit from the rights and protections that come with it. The directive on March 26th 2014 by former cabinet secretary for internal security required the closure of all refugee registration centres outside the camps. Registration of refugees is still limited in urban areas, and intermittent in the camps.

Registration at Daadab is suspended, affecting over 2,600 new arrivals including women and children. Responsibility for Refugee Status Determination (RSD) is moving from the UNHCR to the Department of Refugee Affairs causing confusion for refugees. It currently takes about three years for someone to get refugee status.

Kenya has been more involved in addressing situations that fuel refugee outflows. Kenya is actively engaged, through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, in mediation between the two main protagonists in South Sudan’s conflict as well as, through the East African Community, in trying to stem the crisis in Burundi. It has a long-standing role in supporting Somalia to establish a viable state. However, it is in Kenya’s interest to do more to provide leadership, encouraging approaches that address structural violence and foster respect for institutions. Kenya could also encourage accountability to achieve sustainable peace.