Kenya: Global Compact on Refugees must be quickly anchored in national policy

By Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

The endorsement of the Global Compact on Refugees at the United Nations General Assembly on 17 December will not improve the lives of refugees in Kenya, based on the government’s record on the rights of people fleeing conflict and persecution, unless it turns rhetoric into action.

Kenya is renowned for its eagerness to support, draft and sign instruments aimed at protecting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, but sadly not for implementing them.
Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International's Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

Kenya is renowned for its eagerness to support, draft and sign instruments aimed at protecting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, but sadly not for implementing them.

It is now more than 50 years since Kenya ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, which contains the international principles and standards for protecting refugees. However, Kenyan authorities have violated many of these principles, including the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning individuals to places where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations.

In 2016, for example, Kenyan authorities arrested and deported a registered South Sudanese refugee, James Gatdet, spokesperson for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – In Opposition (SPLA-IO), despite warnings that his life would be in danger in South Sudan. Gatdet was arrested on arrival in Juba and sentenced to death by hanging. He was saved from the hangman’s noose as a result of international pressure.

In 2016, for example, Kenyan authorities arrested and deported a registered South Sudanese refugee, James Gatdet, spokesperson for the SPLA-IO despite warnings that his life would be in danger in South Sudan.
Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

Kenya also ratified the African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa in 1993. As a result, thousands of Somalis fleeing war and famine have found refuge in Kenya, but at a high price. They are disproportionately targeted in counter-terror operations and face arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion, ill-treatment, forcible relocation within Kenya, and even deportation.

Nationally, the Kenya Refugee Act 2006, which provides guidelines for the management of refugees, has been implemented in a piecemeal, halting fashion. The country’s refugee camps were only formally recognised by the government in 2014, while the members of the Refugee Appeal Board, the body responsible for hearing and deciding appeals on refugee status decisions, were only appointed in 2015. The Refugee Advisory Committee, tasked with advising and assisting the Commissioner of refugees on matters related to recognition of refugees is yet to be constituted.

In 2014, the government set a ceiling of 150,000 for Somali refugees permitted in the country, despite already hosting more than 550,000 registered individuals.
Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

The government has also over the years made knee-jerk amendments to domestic refugee law, threatening the wellbeing of refugees. In 2014, the government set a ceiling of 150,000 for Somali refugees permitted in the country, despite already hosting more than 550,000 registered individuals. In 2016, the government disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs and directed that all Somali refugees be repatriated and the Dadaab refugee camp closed. Thankfully, in February 2017 the High Court of Kenya overturned both decisions for being unconstitutional and in contravention of the country’s international obligations.

A month later, Kenya committed to continue providing asylum to Somali refugees by signing the ‘Nairobi Declaration’ on durable solutions for Somali refugees. However, Kenya has stubbornly refused to register incoming Somali refugees, of whom there are now estimated to be over 12,000 at Dadaab.

Kenya committed to continue providing asylum to Somali refugees however, the authorities have stubbornly refused to register incoming Somali refugees, of whom there are now estimated to be over 12,000 at Dadaab.
Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

Without any documentation, these refugees constantly face police harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the threat of deportation for being in the country ‘illegally’. Hardly two days pass without Amnesty International receiving calls for help from arrested Somali refugees.

When Amnesty International tried to establish who was responsible for registration of refugees at the Ministry of Interior, we were sent on a wild goose chase from directorate to directorate - each pointing at the other.

Without any documentation, these refugees face police harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the threat of deportation for being in the country ‘illegally’.
Victor Nyamori, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

So now comes the Global Compact on Refugees: a process aiming to better organize the international response to refugee arrivals by easing pressure on host countries, enhancing self-reliance among people on the move, expanding access to resettlement and improving conditions in countries of origin for safe and dignified returns.

The world is faced with an unprecedented number of people on the move, 25.4 million of whom were recorded as refugees by December 2017. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 85 percent of refugees are hosted by developing countries.

The Global Compact on Refugees comes hot in the heels of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in 2016. This called for an end to confining people in camps and integrating them into society by empowering them to contribute to their new communities and to secure their own futures in dignity. Both the Compact and the CCRF aim to bring in refugees from the fringes of society to enable them to benefit from national education, health and employment opportunities. They also aim to improve conditions in refugees’ countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

Kenya’s Turkana County, which also hosts Kakuma Refugee Camp, provides a glimmer of hope. The county is piloting the Kalobeyei integrated settlement, which hosts both refugees and the local community. Refugees are also working with NGOs to make a living from their skills.

However, these budding positive initiatives will face severe challenges unless they are grounded in government policy. Kenya must now anchor all its international refugee commitments in policy. The adoption of the Global Compact for Refugees must usher in a change of attitude towards refugees; hosting refugees must be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden.

This OpEd was first published in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper on 24 December 2018.