A Somali refugee in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairob is assisted by the JRS urban emergency project. (Gerry Straub — Jesuit Refugee Service)
(Nairobi) May 24, 2013 — When the government of Kenya decided last December to order all refugees living in urban areas to move to camps and ceased registration of asylum seekers in urban areas, fear and hardship descended on the Kenyan capital. In particular Somali refugees, as well as Kenyans of Somali origin, have been subjected to increased harassment. Despite efforts by Kenyan NGOs to block the implementation of the directive, hospitality to refugees is at an all-time low.
After Kenyan forces launched an offensive against the insurgent group al-Shabab in south Somalia at the end of 2011, a wave of kidnappings, bombings and gun attacks took place in Eastleigh, Dadaab and Garissa in southern and northeastern Kenya. Consequently, the government moved to tightened security. However, the indiscriminate nature of the government response is causing real hardship. Somalis say they are harassed by police, and wrongfully blamed for a wave of attacks that have shaken Kenya in recent months.
Rather than continue to live in fear in Nairobi, some 20,000 are believed to have voluntarily left the country. Chronic insecurity and underdevelopment, however, make it unlikely Somalia can guarantee the protection of more than 600,000 refugees currently residing in Kenya. For those refugees moving to the camps in northern Kenya, which are overcrowded and dangerous, the situation is not much better. Although there are plans to build new camps, there is little evidence they will be more secure.
Consequently, mistrust between Kenyan forces and the Somali community in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi — commonly referred to as 'Little Mogadishu' — has also increased, depriving police of cooperation and information sharing. Refugees in Eastleigh have sought safety from police harassment in churches and in extreme cases even locked themselves in at home.
Refugees caught in the crisis frequently lost most or all of their belongings. They blame the police. Robbed when they were arrested, some Somalis have been forced to pay to be released, as well protection money to illegal local vigilante groups. Those who lost their businesses during police raids have been further marginalized. Breadwinners have fled due to harassment, and families are being forced to depend on civil society groups for food, medicines, and other basic necessities.
In areas where there have been increased arrests, Jesuit Refugee Service teams have worked with local NGOs, like the Refugee Consortium of Kenya and Kituo Cha Sheria, in an effort to ensure Somalis receive legal assistance against arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions. Having been forced to flee and seek safety in Kenya, recent events have caused the re-traumatization of vulnerable individuals in refugee communities.
NGOs are trying to respond as well they can. Those refugees gathered outside churches for safety are being offered psychosocial support by JRS teams of community helpers, pastoral workers and referred to specialist agencies where appropriate.
Like other grassroots NGOs, JRS has also reached out to the local authorities in Nairobi to being community leaders together, asking them to use their influence to promote hospitality towards refugees, to live peacefully with the refugees as they had for more than a decade. In their contact with local populations JRS teams stress that the recent violence is not the fault of the refugee community at large.
Following the dialogue with local and refugee communities and the reduction of the intensity of bombings, JRS field staff believe the situation has begun to normalize. Yet it will take time as too many Kenyans remain wary of outsiders whose presence they equate with the recent violence.
Much depends on the response of the Kenyan authorities to this latest security threat. Indiscriminate responses not only fail to respect the human rights of the refugee population in Kenya, they do little to improve security for the population as a whole.
by Mathias Mbisu
JRS Urban Emergency Program Field Assistant, Nairobi