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(London) - The Kenyan government should immediately stop forced returns of internally displaced people and ensure that all returns are safe and voluntary, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 5, the Kenyan government launched Operation “Rudi Nyumbani” (Return Home), aimed at returning thousands of men, women, and children to their homes, which they fled in the violent aftermath of the December 2007 elections. However, on May 8, the provincial commissioner for Rift Valley province announced that all displaced persons camps in the province would be closed within three weeks. Since the announcement, there have been mounting reports of forced returns and inadequate services once people reach their homes.

“How can you have a voluntary return program with a deadline?” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Internally displaced people have the right to return voluntarily, when they feel safe, not when it suits the government.”

More than 250,000 people were newly displaced by the post-election violence in January and February 2008, and more than 100,000 were still in camps as of May 8. Many people fear that their home areas remain unsafe and that adequate reconciliation between hostile communities has not taken place. In the past weeks, there have been attacks on returning persons in Trans-Nzoia and Molo districts. Moreover, many people are being forced to return to areas where there is no food or shelter and the government has not provided any services.

In Trans-Nzoia district, in the northern Rift Valley, international nongovernmental organizations described to Human Rights Watch how police officers forcefully emptied camps in the Kitale area and ordered displaced people to leave. For instance, on May 13 in Kitale town, aid workers witnessed armed police dismantling occupied tents and the district commissioner beating a woman who refused to return home.

This account is just one of many incidents in which displaced persons have been driven out of camps in recent weeks without food or shelter. Many have gone back to the camps or simply set up informal camps closer to their home areas because their homes are still not safe. A man was killed by hostile neighbours in Patwaka when he returned two weeks ago. A group of 145 people who were moved from Explosion camp to Kitwamba on May 13 returned to Explosion because there was no food. According to the Nairobi-based National Internally Displaced Persons Network of Kenya (IDP Network), residents in Kuresoi complained that they had no shelter and no food upon reaching the places where their homes used to be; some went back to the camps on foot. Newspapers have reported at least two people were killed in Molo district by hostile neighbors unhappy at their return.

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons state that “Internally displaced persons … have the right to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.” The Guiding Principles reflect international humanitarian law as well as human rights law, and provide a consolidated set of international standards governing the treatment of the internally displaced. Kenya has ratified the Great Lakes Pact which incorporates the Guiding Principles.

Forcefully returning displaced persons is not only a violation of the rights of those who had already been forced to flee their homes, but it also risks fuelling further conflict in an already volatile environment. The situation of internally displaced persons in Kenya is complex and requires a much broader examination and response. Many of the recently displaced people, as well as many others, were previously displaced from their homes and were never compensated for the losses they suffered during previous rounds of violence as far back as 1992.
“Returning people to unsafe or contested areas in a hurry will only lead to an illusion of peace, and in the long run it may make matters worse,” said Gagnon. “With the National Dialogue and Reconciliation and the new coalition government, Kenya has an opportunity to right historical injustices and address the problem of displacement in its totality.”

Even before the 2007 election, Kenya had a massive number of displaced persons due to decades of land disputes and conflict. In 2006, the IDP Network estimated that the total number of displaced persons in Kenya was between 250,000 and 365,000.

Successive governments have failed to solve the underlying causes of the displacement: disputes over land ownership and allocation as well as political violence fuelled by the political manipulation of ethnic tensions and communal mistrust.

Human Rights Watch called for the government to address the short-term concerns of security and assistance by engaging internally displaced persons in discussion about the return and resettlement process. The government should keep the camps open until such time as internally displaced persons feel safe to return. In the meantime, the government should continue to meet its obligations to provide people with security, assistance, and basic services such as health and education.

A durable solution to Kenya’s endemic problem of violence and displacement will only be realised when the government seriously addresses the long-running disputes over land rights, corruption, and unequal land ownership.

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