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Kenya: Police Abuse Somali Refugees

Government, UN, Donors Should Address Widespread Violence, Degrading Detention, Extortion, and Policing Failures

(Nairobi) - Kenyan police at the Somali border and in nearby refugee camps are abusing asylum seekers and refugees fleeing war-torn Somalia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kenya should immediately rein in its abusive police, and the UN refugee agency should step up its monitoring of the situation and press for an end to the abuses, Human Rights Watch said. 

Based on interviews with over 100 refugees, the 99-page report, "‘Welcome to Kenya': Police Abuse of Somali Refugees," documents widespread  police extortion of asylum seekers trying to reach three camps near the Kenyan town of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee settlement. Police use violence, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention in inhuman and degrading conditions, threats of deportation, and wrongful prosecution for "unlawful presence" to extort money from the new arrivals - men, women, and children alike. In some cases, police also rape women. In early 2010 alone, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Somalis unable to pay extortion demands were sent back to Somalia, in flagrant violation of Kenyan and international law.

"People fleeing the mayhem in Somalia, the vast majority women and children, are welcomed to Kenya with rape, whippings, beatings, detention, extortion, and summary deportation," said Gerry Simpson, refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch and principal author of the report. "Once in the camps, some refugees face more police violence and the police turn a blind eye to sexual violence by other refugees and local Kenyans."

Dozens of asylum seekers from among the estimated 40,000 Somalis who crossed Kenya's officially closed border near the camps in the first four months of 2010 told Human Rights Watch that police ignored their pleas for free passage from the border. Instead, the police demanded money and deported or detained, beat, and falsely charged them with unlawful presence if they could not pay. A Kenyan refugee aid worker described the police operation between the border and Garissa, the provincial capital, as "one big money-making machine."

"Welcome to Kenya" also documents how the threat of police interception and related abuses forces most asylum seekers to travel toward the camps on small paths away from the main road. There they are also vulnerable to attacks from common criminals, who prey upon them, raping women and stealing the little money they have.

Once in the camps, refugees continue to face police violence, according to the report. Police have failed to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence against refugee women and girls in the camps by other refugees and Kenyans, creating a culture of impunity and increasing the risk of sexual violence.

The report also examines Kenya's illegal policy of prohibiting the vast majority of refugees registered in the camps from travelling to other parts of Kenya, unless they have special permission for reasons such as medical appointments or education in Nairobi. Under international law, Kenya must justify any such prohibition as the least restrictive measure necessary to protect national security, public order, or public health, which it has failed to do. In 2009, the authorities allowed only 6,000 of Dadaab's almost 300,000 refugees to travel outside the squalid and overcrowded camps.

The report documents how police arrest refugees travelling without - and increasingly those with - government-issued "movement passes," extort money from them, and sometimes take them to court in Garissa, where they are fined or sent to prison.

"Welcome to Kenya" contends  that the organized nature of the police's extortion racket and abuses - extending almost 200 kilometers from the border town of Liboi through the town of Dadaab  to Garissa - is the direct result of Kenya's three-year-old decision to close the border. Human Rights Watch said that the related closing of a refugee transit center in Liboi, 15 kilometers from the border and 80 kilometers from the camps, has only made matters worse.

Before it closed, the Liboi transit center was a safe place where the vast majority of Somali asylum seekers first sought refuge in Kenya and from which the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), transported them to the camps. Without the center, an estimated 300,000 Somalis fleeing their country to Kenya since January 2007 - half of whom have gone to the camps - have had to use smugglers to cross the border. The police take advantage of the clandestine nature of their journey, falsely accusing them of unlawfully entering Kenya and threatening arrest if they don't pay money the police demand.

Under Kenya's Refugee Act, all asylum seekers have 30 days after entering Kenya to travel to the nearest refugee authorities to register as refugees, regardless of how or where they entered the country. But the police routinely ignore this right. Echoing Human Rights Watch's recommendations to the Kenyan authorities in a March 2009 report, "From Horror to Hopelessness," the new report reiterates its call on the authorities to open a new center in Liboi where newly arrived asylum seekers can be screened and from which they can be safely transported to the camps.

"For more than three years the closed border has benefitted no one except corrupt police officers and has led to untold abuses against hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum seekers," Simpson said. "Kenya needs to guarantee safe passage and protection to Somalia's vulnerable refugees."

The Kenyan government has real security concerns relating to the Somali conflict, but its anti-Somali political rhetoric has only reinforced the abusive police behavior, Human Rights Watch said. Asylum seekers say that police accuse them of belonging to the Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab or to Al Qaeda, or of being "terrorists" before - in some cases - forcing them back to Somalia. Based on eight cases involving the forced return to Somalia of 152 people that Human Rights Watch documented during its research in March 2010, Human Rights Watch believes it is likely that police have returned hundreds, if not thousands, of Somalis to their country in early 2010 alone.

International law prohibits the forcible return of refugees to persecution, torture or situations of generalized violence. Although Kenya has the right to prevent certain people from entering or remaining in Kenya - including those reasonably regarded as a threat to its national security, such as al-Shabaab members - it may not close its borders to asylum seekers. International law also forbids the authorities from deporting asylum seekers back to Somalia without first allowing them to apply for asylum.

"The police say they are protecting Kenya from terrorists and are enforcing immigration laws when they stop refugees," Simpson said. "But the fact that they extort Somalis to pay their way through checkpoints and out of police custody suggests more concern for lining their pockets than protecting their borders."

The report calls on the UN refugee agency to improve its monitoring and advocacy with the authorities and to make more frequent visits to police stations near the border, the town of Dadaab and Garissa.

With regard to sexual violence, victims told Human Rights Watch that the police either ignore their complaints, tell them to produce evidence, or abruptly drop the cases without explanation. In the rare event that police arrest alleged attackers, the suspects are usually released within hours or days, with little hope for further questioning or accountability. Many women believe their alleged attackers successfully bribe the police to drop investigations or to let the suspects go.

Human Rights Watch said that despite some improvements since the early 1990s, the government's response to sexual violence in the camps fails because there are too few police in the camps with skills to investigate these crimes and because there is inadequate supervision of police handling of these cases.

"Nearly two decades into their existence, the camps remain a place where justice for rape victims is the exception and impunity for perpetrators the rule," said Meghan Rhoad, researcher with Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division, who wrote the section of the report on sexual violence. "The refugee women and girls who bravely come forward and report sexual violence to the police deserve better."

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