The government of Kenya has been drawing fire for its recent decision to forcibly remove registered refugees from Nairobi and transfer them to already crowded camps. On December 18, 2012 the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs announced it would cease to register refugees in urban areas and instructed all existing urban refugees to move to camps in Dadaab and Kakuma.
That announcement, which sparked wide spread fear among refugees and outspoken criticism from the humanitarian community, was officially delayed late last week by order of the Kenyan High Court. In response to a petition filed on behalf of two refugees by a local human rights organization, the court prohibited the government from implementing its December 18 directive until a full hearing can be held.
Nairobi-based and other urban refugees can stay where they are for the moment, but what was behind the Government’s initial decision, and what will come next?
The Government decision followed on the heels of a grenade attack in one of Nairobi’s immigrant neighborhoods. That attack, according to the Government, was carried out by Somali immigrant sympathizers of the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab, although Al-Shabaab has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
Many believe the decision to relocate the refugees was both a reaction to the bombing as well as evidence of the Government’s increased willingness to blame Somali refugees generally for security incidents.
According to Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Kenya is using the recent grenade attacks to stigmatize all refugees as potential terrorists.” HRW also says that police in Nairobi have arrested dozens of Somalis on questionable charges of belonging to terrorist organizations. And many of these cases have subsequently been dismissed for lack of evidence.
Regardless of motivations, Kenya’s refugee camps are already seriously crowed and in no position to accept thousands of new residents. The camps in Dadaab, where Somali refugees were instructed to report, are all struggling with basic infrastructure, security, and human needs such as food, water and medicine. In 2012, Lutheran World Federation and other humanitarian agencies launched an appeal to donor governments for urgent support for vital services. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the main health care providers in Dadaab, the arrival of thousands of additional refugees would only further deteriorate already precarious conditions.
In the midst of all this, UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, now says the Government of Kenya has abandoned its initial plans to forcibly round up the refugees and has stated it will abide by essential refugee protection and humanitarian principles in any further effort to relocate the refugees. That may give some cause for relief, but not a lot. The underlying issues are unresolved, the refugee camps continue to struggle with basic living conditions, and the Government’s statement is vague and not exactly binding. There are still few good options for many of the refugees in Kenya who will certainly be closely watching the High Court hearing now set for February 4.