On the night of April 17, 2002, two Rwandan children aged nine and ten were murdered at a "secure residence" run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi, Kenya. Their throats were slit by an assailant. Their forty-three-year-old mother was also injured. The Rwandans had been placed in the facility because of the inter-ethnic nature of the family, and because the mother is related to the former president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana. The residence is under twenty-four-hour security protection, surrounded by a high fence, visitors are not permitted, and asylum seekers or refugees cannot leave the residence without permission. The family's application for resettlement to Australia had been mired in delay for some eleven months, despite the fact that their lives were at risk. The attack occurred one day after their case had been accepted by Australia for resettlement.
Few refugees living in Nairobi or Kampala, Uganda, have cases that are as high profile as this Rwandan family's. However, many are facing a similar plight-having escaped to these cities from persecution, refugees are met with further insecurity, something they hoped they had left behind. The very actors who are tasked under international law with protecting them put refugees' lives at risk: host governments, UNHCR, and the international community, including resettlement governments are all to blame for the terrible conditions and danger that urban refugees live with in Nairobi and Kampala. The extent and urgency of the problems are in plain view for those who care to look. However, there is little incentive to address the needs of urban refugees because the governments of Kenya and Uganda have policies that require that refugees live in camps. As a result, refugees who are in the city are neglected, and the abuses they face rarely come to light.
Refugees, just like other impoverished residents of Nairobi and Kampala, live in overcrowded and often squalid living conditions in the poorest neighborhoods. Refugees may not be poorer than Kenyans or Ugandans, but they must struggle for survival without the legal status or networks of friends and family that citizens have. Some are forced to sleep on the streets, leaving them vulnerable to violence and illness. Since very few relief agencies are able to assist them, food is scarce and medical treatment is difficult to obtain. Those who require counseling or medical care because they are victims of torture are forced to negotiate labyrinthine referral systems, and many simply go without treatment.
Not only do refugees face serious challenges to their social and economic survival, they are also at great risk from a lack of protection for their physical safety: in both countries there are serious shortcomings with the determination procedures used to decide whether a person should be recognized as a refugee and afforded protection (in Kenya, the refugee status determination is run by UNHCR; in Uganda it is done jointly by UNHCR and the government). In Nairobi, the determination system is dysfunctional because it subjects asylum seekers1 to lengthy delays, during which they are vulnerable to ongoing abuse. The system is also marred by an overwhelming sense of futility, since the outcome of the process - a letter recognizing a particular individual's status - is routinely ignored and even destroyed by Kenyan police during arrests and roundups of foreigners that occur on a daily basis.
In Uganda, the government's role in the conflicts and politics of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Sudan makes asylum seekers who come from those countries fearful of the system. While delay plagues the status determination system in Nairobi from day one, asylum seekers in Kampala only experience delays if their cases are particularly complex or the government is suspicious of the applicant. Yet it is often these complex or allegedly "suspicious" cases that require the most urgent attention.
Refugees' physical security is at risk especially before they have their status assessed, but even afterwards the risk remains. Individuals may suffer from extortion, harassment, beatings, arbitrary arrest, detention, and/or sexual violence, all at the hands of the Kenyan or Ugandan police or military. It is the responsibility of the government to prevent such abuses, and since state actors are the perpetrators, the state is directly responsible for providing redress. But when the perpetrator of the abuse, for example the Kenyan or Ugandan police, is the same party to whom a victim must turn for help and redress, complaints are rarely voiced.
Many asylum seekers or refugees in Nairobi and Kampala are also trailed, threatened, or assaulted by agents from their home countries. Refugees who suffer such abuse are often left with only one option: seeking urgent resettlement in a third country. Despite the urgency, these refugees are often faced with refusal or bureaucratic delay.
Refugees or asylum seekers in Nairobi or Kampala with security or assistance problems often do not know where to turn for help. When the police or governments of Kenya or Uganda fail them, and when UNHCR is unresponsive, they may seek help from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Refugee Law Project in Kampala or the Refugee Consortium of Kenya in Nairobi. Despite government and UNHCR resistance, a small number of humanitarian agencies provide some assistance to the most needy urban refugees. The help is just a drop in the ocean, however, and these agencies can do little to protect refugees from violent attacks, or to intervene in status determination systems that are controlled by UNHCR or, in the case of Uganda, the government.
Human Rights Watch recommends that UNHCR, the governments of Kenya and Uganda, and donor governments implement their responsibilities to protect and assist refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas by, inter alia: regularizing the legal status of urban refugees, improving the status determination systems in both Nairobi and Kampala, preventing and responding to the insecurity and ongoing human rights violations that so many asylum seekers and refugees living in urban areas face, improving the quality of and access to assistance in Nairobi and Kampala, rejecting improper use of secondary movement policies, and ameliorating problems with resettlement and UNHCR's urban refugee policy. The details of these recommendations are set forth below.
1 This report will use the term "asylum seeker" when referring to an individual who has not yet had his or her status as a refugee assessed, on either a prima facie or an individual basis. See note 18, below, for a description of prima facie status. The term "refugee" will be used to refer to those who have had their status so assessed.