Refugees in Kenya are often the victims of inhumane and illegal treatment by the government. Activists must work with the government to abolish the practice of forcible repatriation and to improve the pathetic conditions in refugee camps.
Despite scholars and human rights crusaders agreeing that repatriation should be voluntary, governments have defined and carried out repatriation in different formats.
One of these forms is ricochet repatriation: to do this, the government uses military personnel and security apparatus to compel fear in refugees. Truckloads of uniformed officers patrol the streets sending shivers among refugees and foreigners. It's a fact that most refugees in Kenya were victims of persecution in their countries of origin, whose agents are military personnel or armed groups and rebels. Seeing uniformed officers psychologically affects refugees, sending shivers of fear down their spines. This reminds them of persecution faced back home. Refugees who feel personally threatened by this will have no option but to seek to return to their countries of origin.
The second form of contemporary repatriation is relocation-stimulated repatriation: once the host government, that is, Kenya, decides to round up refugees scattered around a country and move them to camps, refugees decide whether to accept control by the host government or to try to elude the authorities and find a place to live away from other refugees. To avoid arrest and detention by the host government, most refugees would want to return back to their countries of origin.
It is not a new script that Kenya is employing. The call for refugees to return to areas not controlled by persecuting agents in the country of origin—or perhaps controlled by a rival political force or by local, foreign or international forces— was seen to work effectively in Tigray, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia and Guatemala. Forced return of impressed refugees to a conflict zone was also seen in Khmer Rouge. Tanzania recently rounded a number of Rwandan refugees and forcefully returned them back to Rwanda on the on the claims of threat to national security.
Kenya’s Refugees Act of 2006 presents the Kenyan government with the responsibility of protecting a refugee who is not to be removed from Kenya or returned to any other country if such a measure is likely to put the life of such a person in jeopardy. Section 16 of the same act obligates the government of Kenya to protect the rights of refugees and their family members in Kenya in line with the obligations enshrined in the international conventions. On the other hand, section 21 of the Refugees Act allows the cabinet secretary to order the expulsion from Kenya of any refugee or member of his family if the cabinet considers the expulsion to be necessary on the grounds of maintaining national security or public order.
It is an internationally-known principle that repatriation should be voluntary in nature. The voluntary aspect ensures that refugees voluntarily accept to leave their host country without being induced or forced, as is the case in Kenya. This calls for a process that is safe and dignified. Safety encompasses the legal, material and physical safety of the affected group. Currently, the process being undertaken by the Kenyan government threatens the legal and physical safety of refugees. The decision to put over 2000 arrested refugees in concentration camps in urban areas is not a dignified process. Refugees are detained in police stations and in Kasarani Stadium with no properly treated drinking water or sanitation. They go hungry and do not have the space to relieve themselves. Men, women and children are detained in the same areas, which clearly goes against fundamental rights and freedom. Families have also been separated through these processes and children have been left unattended, thus raising their vulnerabilities to child predators.
Judging from how the process has been developing over a period of time, I know the government may not relent in this process in the coming days. I call on the international community and Kenyan civil society to change tack in dealing with this issue and to ensure continued service provision to vulnerable refugees. Wash services are required in the so-called detention camps operated by the Kenyan security forces in urban areas. Most arrests and detentions happen on Friday nights and as such, many persons are detained for over three days before being presented to a court of law. Tents, blankets and food rations are required in police stations and in Kasarani Stadium. Some persons who were arrested are on daily medications and failing to take the medications put them at more risk.
As efforts for advocacy continue both nationally and internationally, NGOs must ensure that persons of concern live dignified lives in police camps. Contingency measures need to be in place if the government moves to the extreme point of putting refugees in lorries and relocating them back to Dadaab and Kakuma.
Protection actors need to be on red alert, as such will be the beginning of risky protection affairs. Unaccompanied minors, separated children, the sick, the old and the disabled will be at high risk. Girls and women will also be vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse. This will be the point to work closely with the Kenyan government so as to ensure that at-risk individuals are protected. Failure to work with the government on these issues will mean that we are placing the lives of refugees in front of a firing squad. Protection services must continue. A task force comprised of government departments and humanitarian organizations will be required to steer these processes. Proper documentation before the process of relocation starts is very important. Most family separations happen during such relocations and if proper guidelines for identification, tracing and family reunification are not put in place, then we will face an imminent humanitarian crisis akin to those in the Philippines, Haiti and Rwanda. Protection monitors and community-based actors need to be trained in how to identify vulnerable refugees within groups and to understand how the community will participate in making sure that they benefit from all services provided during the process of relocation. Vulnerable persons like the old, sick and disabled should have someone appointed and designated to walk and assist them through the process. Women and children should also be protected, as some people take advantage of them in the guise of assisting them through the process of relocation. People should also be allowed to relocate with their property and early possessions. Protection is saving a life.
* Nyamori Victor is a lawyer and refugee protection practitioner. The views contained herein are personal and do not reflect the views of any institution or organization with which he is affiliated.
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