Kenyan police appear to be using the November 28 attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombassa to justify a crackdown on refugees living in Nairobi, Human Rights Watch said today. Since November 29, the police have conducted three large raids and dozens of arbitrary arrests against refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in several neighborhoods of Nairobi.
In the largest group arrest on November 29 at approximately 8:00 pm, 20 Kenyan police officers began house-to-house arrests in Kawangware, a so-called slum neighborhood to the southwest of Nairobi. More than 50 refugees were arrested, and some described being beaten during the arrests. All were pushed into two waiting trucks, among them Sudanese and Congolese refugees, including children. Several other refugees avoided arrest by paying bribes to the police. Among those arrested were two Congolese refugee women with UNHCR-issued documents granting them permission to remain in Nairobi for security reasons. They were waiting for resettlement to a third country, which was necessary because they were judged to be in danger in Kenya.
"Refugees in Kenya are often at risk because of potential violence from criminal elements. It turns out they are also under threat from the Kenyan police who should be protecting refugees, not abusing them," said Alison Parker, a refugee expert and author of Human Rights Watch's recent report on abuses against refugees living in Nairobi and Kampala.
"Refugees are also vulnerable to violence at the hands of 'security' agents from their home countries," Parker said.
All 54 Sudanese and Congolese refugees spent the night in a 40-by-30 meter cell at the Muthangari station in Nairobi. Conditions were deplorable, according to a UNHCR official who visited the station. One Congolese refugee woman was arrested along with her child, and she counted some eight other children who were detained along with their mothers. Refugee women were also forced to clean the jail during their time in detention. UNHCR was not allowed access to the refugees until midday on November 30, when the documented refugees were released. Some of the Sudanese refugees remain in detention.
The recent round of arrests is just the latest example where the Kenyan police have committed rights violations against refugees. Police at the Muthangari station told UNHCR officials that the Mombassa crimes were the rationale for the crackdown, but the authorities have made no official link between the Mombassa attacks and this group of detained refugees in Nairobi. To our knowledge, no refugee was charged with criminal acts or terrorist-related activities.
"Acts of violence, however terrible, never justify a government roundup of refugees. Kenya will not help improve its international image by scapegoating marginal groups such as refugees," Parker said.
Similar crackdowns against refugees occurred in September 1998, in October 2001, twice in February 2001, and in May 2002. In the aftermath of the Mombassa attacks and in the lead-up to Kenya's elections later this month, Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan police to stop arbitrarily arresting and detaining refugees and otherwise violating their human rights.