(Nairobi) - The Kenyan government should immediately stop the recruitment of Somalis in refugee camps to fight for an armed force in Somalia, Human Rights Watch said today. Kenyan authorities have directly supported the drive, which has recruited hundreds of Somali men and boys in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps as well as Kenyan citizens from nearby towns.
Since early October, Somali recruiters claiming to act on behalf of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have operated openly in the Dadaab camps in northeast Kenya, near the Somali border, to enlist young refugees in a new force intended to fight in Somalia. But military recruitment in these camps contravenes the principle recognized in international law that refugee camps should be entirely civilian and humanitarian in character.
"Permitting recruitment of fighters in refugee camps undermines the very purpose of the camps - to be a place of refuge from the conflict," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Kenyan authorities need to immediately put a stop to this recruitment drive targeting Somali refugees."
The recruitment drive is also targeting Kenyans around the towns of Dadaab and Garissa. The Somali armed group al-Shabaab has also sought to recruit fighters among Somali refugee communities and Kenyans.
Human Rights Watch investigations have found that recruiters for the new force have used deceptive practices, promising exorbitant pay and claiming that the force has United Nations and other international backing. They have urged teenage refugees to lie about their ages and to join without informing their families. Former recruits say that their cell phones were taken from them before they were transported to the training center.
Top Kenyan officials including the foreign minister have categorically denied this recruitment drive is taking place at all, but in fact it is operating with direct Kenyan support, including government transport vehicles and guards.
The Dadaab camps, built to house 90,000 people in the early 1990s, are now home to over 280,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia. It is the largest concentration of refugees in the world. More than 50,000 people have arrived in the camps since January 2009. Many are fleeing the bloody conflict between Somalia's weak TFG and various armed opposition groups, including al-Shabaab, some of whose leaders have publicly linked themselves to al-Qaeda.
Human Rights Watch has documented war crimes and serious human rights abuses by all sides to the conflict, which has caused thousands of civilian deaths, tremendous destruction of civilian property, and massive displacement. The Kenyan government strongly supports the TFG and has become increasingly apprehensive about the possibility of attacks on its soil by al-Shabaab.
This month, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Kenyan town of Dadaab and the three refugee camps that surround it-Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera. They interviewed more than two dozen people, including young men and boys who had been approached by recruiters, parents of young men who joined the force, individuals involved in the recruitment effort, and community leaders in the camps.
Recruiters began circulating in the refugee camps in early October. According to local community leaders and a recruiter working in two of the camps, they have recruited at least several hundred refugees. Many recruits are promised an initial payment of between US$400 and $600 for the military training itself, to be followed with a generous monthly salary upon deployment to Somalia. Most of the recruiters are telling prospects that they will be deployed to fight alongside the transitional government's forces, either in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, or in southern Somalia.
The recruiters operating in the camps are themselves refugees who have been promised generous payments by the coordinators of the drive. Recruiters have also been operating in the town of Dadaab, seeking to enlist ethnic Somali Kenyan citizens into the same force. Residents and local officials in Garissa, the provincial capital of Kenya's North Eastern Province, and surrounding communities said that recruitment is also taking place among their own young men and boys.
The recruitment program is being coordinated by a small group of Somali nationals who are living and operating openly from a hotel in Dadaab. The team is allegedly headed by two prominent individuals from southern Somalia who had ties to the administration of the former president of the transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf.
Recruiters hire private cars to transport young men and boys to one of at least two isolated staging locations near the town of Dadaab. From there they are loaded into Kenyan military and National Youth Service trucks and told that they are being taken to a Kenyan government facility at Manyani, near Mombasa, for military training. Two sources - a young man who went searching for a recruited relative at the Manyani training center, and a government official with knowledge of the recruitment program - told Human Rights Watch that this facility is a Kenya Wildlife Service field training school. The school provides paramilitary training to anti-poaching rangers as well as other branches of the Kenyan security forces. Police personnel for Somalia's transitional government have also undergone training at the facility in the past.
International Law Prohibitions on Refugee Recruitment
The principle that refugee camps should be "exclusively civilian and humanitarian in character" is derived from international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law and is embodied in the guidelines of the UN refugee agency and UN Security Council resolutions.
Guidelines of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aim to prevent the military recruitment of refugees in camps and settlements. The refugee agency's executive committee has called upon all countries to "ensure that measures are taken to prevent the recruitment of refugees by government armed forces or organized armed groups." Ensuring the civilian character of refugee camps is essential for efforts to protect refugees, since the military use of camps-and the refugee population-by armed forces and non-state armed groups can make the sites vulnerable as military objectives and place the civilian population at increased risk.
The refugee agency recently distributed a bulletin in the camps warning that refugees who join an armed group risk losing their refugee status. It also warned that family members may be permanently disqualified for resettlement if they support the efforts of a relative to join an armed group. The young men interviewed by Human Rights Watch appeared to be unaware of this.
False Promises and Claims of UN Backing
Many recruiters for the force have been telling young men in the camps and nearby towns that their effort is backed by the United Nations, the United States government, and the European Union. Some are even saying that recruits will be deployed as part of a new UN force in Somalia. One elderly Kenyan Somali man in Dadaab whose 20-year-old son joined told Human Rights Watch that, "My son is educated and he told me that the United Nations is recruiting an army. So I gave him my blessing and he has my total support." Officials from the UN Political Office for Somalia, the US government, and the European Commission, in interviews with or statements to Human Rights Watch, all denied involvement.
In addition to the $600 promised for undergoing the military training, most recruiters are promising a similar amount in monthly salary after the recruits are deployed to Somalia. While most recruiters tell the young men that they will be sent to fight in Somalia, some promise that they will only be incorporated into a civilian police force that will never see combat or that they will be employed as guards at UN or African Union installations.
Recruits are poorly treated. After the first leg of their journey from their homes, many find themselves stranded in an open expanse of desert without food, water, or shelter, sometimes overnight, as they await onward transport. Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to a staging area near Ege one late afternoon and found a group of nine young men who had been sitting in the scorching sand since morning waiting to be picked up. They had neither water nor food throughout the entire day.
Recruits also soon hear that salaries are to be as low as $200 a month, much less than originally promised. Human Rights Watch interviewed several young men who managed to return home after learning this. Many Somali refugee parents who sought to find their sons who had enlisted were not able to do so because they lack Kenyan government permission to leave the camps.
"Kenyan government-backed recruiters are luring young men with false claims of UN and other international support," Gagnon said. "Getting the recruiters out of the camps and publicly dissociating the UN from any involvement are first steps to shutting the program down."
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that children are being recruited. Some recruiters are encouraging teenagers under 18 to lie about their age so they can enlist. Human Rights Watch interviewed boys as young as 15 who had been approached by recruiters but did not enlist. However, several recruits told Human Rights Watch that they had seen recruiters persuade boys of 14 or 15 to lie about their ages. International law to which Kenya is a party and Somalia a signatory prohibits non-state armed groups from recruiting persons under age 18.
Kenyan Government Involvement
Kenyan government officials are directly involved in the unlawful recruitment drive of refugees from the camps. Publicly, Kenyan national and provincial authorities deny any government involvement. "We are not involved in any such operation - it is propaganda," the Kenyan military spokesman, Bogita Ongeri, told Human Rights Watch, saying that only Somali militia groups working independently and illegally have been recruiting in the camps. James ole Seriani, provincial commissioner for the North Eastern province, told Human Rights Watch that the reports could not be true because, "There is no way the government can recruit people at night. We only recruit during the day." The transitional government's president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, has also publicly denied his government is involved in recruitment in Kenya.
However, one Kenyan government official, who asked not to be identified because he feared repercussions, told Human Rights Watch that the team has been telling Kenyan Somalis whom they recruit "not to mention they are Kenyan." The source added: "They are given the names of specific parts of Somalia and told to say those are the places they come from."
The Kenyan military actively participates in the recruitment process. After being transported in small groups to staging points between Ege and Saredo, near Dadaab, recruits are driven onward on Kenyan military or National Youth Service trucks, usually after dark. Kenyan military personnel have turned away parents of enlistees within sight of the assembled recruits. The young men who board the trucks are required to turn over their cell phones and National ID cards (in the case of Kenyan citizens) or ration cards (in the case of refugees) if they have them. However, the father of one recruit said that his son had retained his cell phone and had called from the road to Mombasa.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a few young men who had escaped from the military trucks when they stopped late at night for food in Garissa. All said that they did not feel they could leave freely by that point. One group cut through the canvas covering the back of the truck and ran into town. One young man said that he traveled to the Kenyan Wildlife Service training school at Manyani to look for a relative but was turned away and briefly detained after persisting.
Kenyan authorities have made no attempt to stop the recruitment drive in the camps or in nearby towns. Parents, deserters, and community leaders said recruitment was brazenly taking place in tea shops and other public places. UNHCR has received several such complaints in recent weeks. And while police in Hagadera camp briefly detained a group of alleged recruiters who were brought there by angry community members, they were released within 24 hours.
One recruiter interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that he had operated openly and without fear of the authorities. "I was told that the Kenyan government was aware of this and I did not have any problem with the police," he said. "Our biggest problem was the parents of the recruits, not the police."
"Rumors of recruitment in refugee camps by Somalia's warring factions have been rife for years, but a Kenyan government-sanctioned program of this magnitude is unprecedented," said Gagnon. "The government's denials of its involvement are completely implausible."
Accounts from Recruits, Recruiters, and Relatives
"I had never seen those men around before. They told me they would employ me and give me $600 to be a military man. They told me I would be taken for training inside of Kenya and then taken to Somalia. They said I will be fighting Al Shabaab, who are slaughtering people. I said, ‘No, I do not want to do that, I am a student.' I told them if I get an education I can help myself and my family instead of being sent to war and dying. But now I am regretting it my father cannot afford the uniform for school and the teacher always chases me from class."
- Hagadera camp refugee, age 15.
"When I first told them I was 18 he [the recruiter] said, ‘We are not interested in 18-year-old boys but we will just write that you are 20.'"
- R., young Somali refugee recruited from Ifo camp
"I was seated waiting for passengers in the car. The recruiter approached me and said, ‘This is not a job. You should join us and you will be paid well. You will not be fighting but part of a new Somali police.' I never expected such an opportunity, so I accepted.... An hour later he called me and told me to wait for pickup.
"[At Ege] we were called together and given a lecture by a Somali man with a big belly. He was with four other men and there were three military trucks waiting there. That is when we actually heard the truth of the matter-that we would be trained for 21 days, taken to Somalia and fight. They said the fighting is meant for you to kill the dirt and the mess that is in the country right now, the Al Shabaab. They said the least paid soldier will earn $200 [a month]. At that moment my wish to go to Mombasa [the training center] disappeared. The message was totally different from what I first heard.
"We had to surrender all of our cell phones, identity cards or other personal effects.
"After 10 p.m. we reached Garissa. The truck stopped in the middle of town. Me and three others cut through the canvas with a razor blade, jumped out of the truck and disappeared into town. We had no money, no phones, nowhere to sleep. So we started walking back to Dadaab. We were afraid they would follow us."
- Ifo camp refugee and commercial van driver who deserted, age 18
"A man came to me at home and said this is recruitment by the United Nations. You will be taken to Mombasa for two years of training and after that you will be assigned to the UN. But later after we had left Ege, a man who said he was a Somali general told us we will be trained for only 21 days and only get $50 until we started fighting. . . . He said this was funded by the US, the European Union, and the African Union."
- Ifo camp refugee who deserted, age 24
"I used to frequent and visit public gathering centers-the car parks, hotels, water pumps, to sensitize and talk to the youth. Mostly I sat at the hotel [tea kiosk] and waited for the youth to approach me. I was telling them, ‘We are recruiting an army for the Somali government. You will be paid $600 [a month]-are you interested?' I was told that the Kenyan government was aware of this and I did not have any problem with the police. Our biggest problem was the parents of the recruits, not the police. I was approached by several young boys but I turned them down. I was looking for boys 18 and above. I can look at them and tell if they are 18."
- Recruiter, Ifo refugee camp
"[Ege] was in a brush area with trees next to a dam with dirty water. The recruits were thirsty and had no water. The dam had dried up so they were digging through the soil to find water to drink. They drank the water. It was time to pray so I wanted to use the water for ablution but it was so dirty I could not."
- Refugee hired to drive recruits from Ifo refugee camp to Ege
"He did not come home at lunch or at night. I got worried and started searching for him. Some of his friends told me that he had gone with the recruiters. Four of his closest friends have also disappeared. I left Somalia with him because of conflict, where he would either kill or be killed. But it seems the same problem has followed me here. If I had known about this I would not have let him go, even if it meant asking the police to arrest him. I want to know where he is so I can make him come back. This is the same as kidnapping our sons."
- Mother of unemployed, 19-year-old recruit, Hagadera
"My son is educated and he told me that the UN is recruiting an army. I saw in the media that the UN had decided to support the Somali army so this did not come as a surprise to me. So I gave him my blessings and he has my total support. I am happy as a father that my son has taken a decisive action. If it is a genuine effort let me pray to God that it goes well and for peace to prevail on the people he is going to serve. He is a son of the soil. He was born here and nowhere else. Please inform the world of what he is doing."
- Father of unemployed, 20-year-old Kenyan Somali recruit, Dadaab
"I have not complained to the police. It is not bandits or kidnappers who are hiding him from me but the government. So how can I complain to them?"
- Father of 19-year-old, unemployed Kenyan Somali recruit, Dadaab
"His phone was shut off immediately after he disappeared. Finally after some days he escaped and called me on a borrowed phone. He was still many kilometers away. I found him lying under a tree. He was tired and starving and traumatized. Who are these people who would take my underage boy? These boys [in the camps] are vulnerable and it is easy for anyone to overcome them psychologically."
- Father of 17-year-old deserter from Ifo refugee camp, who fetched his son after he deserted
"Initially the senior officers denied it. But finally they told me, ‘You are an educated man, you do understand he has been here a week, we have spent a lot of money on him for medical checkups and training and there is no way we can release him now.' They said, ‘Kenya has no involvement. This is being done by outsiders.' They said it was the Americans and the UN and other members of the international community."
- Elder brother of a 17-year-old Kenyan recruit, who tried to fetch his brother from the Kenyan Wildlife Service training center