(Nairobi) – Kenya should protect and assist Somali refugees and asylum seekers facing ongoing conflict and a humanitarian crisis in Somalia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. In line with a recent High Court decision, the authorities should abandon their decision to close the Dadaab refugee camp and publicly declare that the more than 249,000 Somali refugees living there can remain in Kenya until conditions exist for them to return in safety and with dignity.
On March 24-25, 2017, Kenya will host an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit that will bring together Eastern African heads of state to discuss the situation of Somali refugees in the region, as the threat of pervasive drought and food insecurity in Somalia looms. Kenya’s role as host is marred by its continued insistence on closing Dadaab refugee camp, host to over 249,000 Somali refugees, by May.
“Kenya should demonstrate leadership by declaring that Dadaab will remain open and that it will resume prima facie recognition of Somali refugees,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenya and neighboring Eastern African countries, supported by international partners, should urgently assist and protect refugees facing continuing conflict and drought in Somalia.”
In May 2016, the Kenyan government removed prima facie refugee status – meaning recognizing refugee status based simply on nationality – for Somalis and disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, charged with processing asylum claims. It also announced plans to speed up the repatriation of Somali refugees, and to close Dadaab camp in north-eastern Kenya by November, subsequently extended to May.
On February 9, Kenya’s High Court ruled that the government’s May 2016 directives were unconstitutional and discriminated against Somalis. The High Court also ordered the Kenyan government to restore the administration of refugee affairs to the status quo prior to the government’s decision. The Kenyan government has not taken steps to carry out the ruling. On March 8, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya repeated that Kenya’s decision to close Dadaab camp was final.
In 2016, Kenyan authorities, with officials from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, stepped up a 2013 “voluntary” repatriation program. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International research in Dadaab and interviews with more than 100 Somali refugees found that Kenya had not given them a real choice between continuing to receive asylum in Kenya and returning to Somalia, and that the program violated the international principle of non-refoulement – forced return of people to places where they would face persecution, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, or other threats to their lives or freedom – which is binding on Kenya as party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention.
Registration of refugees in Dadaab has been sporadic since 2011 and has been entirely suspended, with some exceptions, since August 2015. In 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International spoke to many unregistered people in Dadaab, including new arrivals and people who had already returned under the repatriation program but then fled back to Dadaab. The people interviewed said they feel particularly vulnerable both due to their lack of legal status and because of their lack of access to food rations. Most recently, in mid-March, over 100 Somali refugees and asylum seekers were arrested in a security operation in Dadaab. According to a refugee agency, those with refugee documentation were released, while 28 Somali asylum seekers were charged with unlawful presence.
Under Kenya’s Refugee Act, the Commissioner of Refugee Affairs must recognize people as refugees if they meet the definition of the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention. The African Union definition includes people fleeing events seriously disturbing public order.
The lack of sufficient international support for Kenya, including through consistently underfunded UN humanitarian appeals and very limited refugee resettlement, has contributed to the appalling situation in Dadaab, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. The World Food Program has repeatedly cut food rations to people in Dadaab due to funding shortfalls. The most recent cut, in December, reduced rations by 50 percent. Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in 2016 who had signed up to return to Somalia often cited the ration cuts as a factor influencing their decision to return, and to accept a one-time UNHCR repatriation package – despite fears for their security and survival in Somalia.
UNHCR’s own assessments indicate that conditions in south-central Somalia are not conducive to mass refugee returns due to ongoing conflict, insecurity, and humanitarian conditions. In May 2016 UNHCR’s guidelines on returns to Somalia found that: “Civilians continue to be severely affected by the conflict, with reports of civilians being killed and injured in conflict-related violence, widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and children, forced recruitment of children, and large-scale displacement.”
The humanitarian situation remains dire. According to the UN, half of Somalia’s population – 6.2 million out of 12.3 million people – are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Many of the communities affected by the 2011 famine are once again at risk.
More than 260,000 people have been displaced by the drought within Somalia since November, adding to the country’s 1.1 million internally displaced people, who live in deplorable and unsafe informal displacement camps in the country’s main towns. Most of those recently displaced in south-central Somalia have fled into Baidoa and Mogadishu, among the areas to which UNHCR is facilitating returns from Dadaab. The UN has also recorded an increase in displacement into neighboring Ethiopia, which currently hosts 245,500 registered Somali refugees. So far, contrary to the period leading up to the 2011 famine, very little movement into Kenya has been recorded.
According to UN data on returns, over half of those returning from Dadaab to Somalia said they would not return to their areas of origin. Returning refugees, especially those unable to return to their home areas or those who have been gone for many years, risk ending up internally displaced in Somalia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have continued to document serious abuses against internally displaced communities in Somalia at the hands of government and non-state actors, including sexual violence and violent forced evictions from their temporary shelters. According to a UN monitoring network, forced evictions increased in late 2016, with more than 60,000 new evictions since November alone.
“Given the ongoing drought and security crisis in Somalia, it’s high time Kenya’s international partners help to ensure that Somalis can find safety and humanitarian assistance in neighboring countries,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International. “International community and donor countries should guarantee adequate technical and financial support to the Kenyan government and civil society to come up with sustainable, long term durable solutions for refugee integration into the country.