Nairobi hosts the majority of the 55,000 refugees living in Kenya's urban areas who are now being ordered to move to insecure and overcrowded Kakuma and Dadaab camps. (Christian Fuchs/Jesuit Refugee Service)
Losing the space to live in dignity and safety

Nairobi, 20 June 2014 – Imagine waking up one morning to find a story in the newspaper saying you have to move to a refugee camp. After fleeing your home and struggling for years to make a life for yourself in Kenya – learning the language, getting an education – you are being displaced again. This time you are being sent 800km away to the desert. This happened not once, but twice in the last 18 months.

The first directive issued by the government of Kenya in December 2012, ordering all refugees in urban areas to live in camps, came as a surprise. Host to one of the world's largest refugee populations, Kenya had historically taken a rather flexible approach to its encampment policy.

The spiral of police crackdowns, followed by a High Court ruling last year quashing the directive, then by a second directive in late March this year, followed by a second High Court appeal, clearly demonstrates the unpredictable nature of the new policy. The future for many refugees is also unpredictable. Unable to renew their papers, their lives are in limbo.

Refugees flee their countries in search of a safe place to call home. The idea of being uprooted again is frightening.

Yet, the Kenyan authorities have been unequivocal. It is the some 55,000 refugees living in urban areas who are considered a threat to national security.

"Owing to the security situation in our urban areas … refugees residing outside the designated refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab are hereby directed to return to their respective camps with immediate effect. There are no other designated refugees camps outside these areas. Any refugee found flouting this directive will be dealt with in accordance with the law. Consequently, all refugee registration centres in urban areas … are hereby closed".

In the 10 weeks following the introduction of the first directive, Human Rights Watch reported the torture, rape, abuse and arbitrary detention of more than 1,000 refugees, mainly Somali and Ethiopian. The second directive has been far harsher. Nearly 4,000 have been detained, some 400 deported and a further 2,000 sent to the camps. In both circumstances, credible accusations of violence, theft and extortion of refugees have been levelled against the police.

Activism. Networks of Kenyan NGOs have again stepped up their monitoring services in major urban areas. Staff, working closely with community leaders, visit police stations to get refugees released without having to pay bribes.

Again legal action is being taken to block the implementation of the directive, although it is not clear how effective the case will be. Last time, the local NGO, Kituo Cha Sheria, together with seven refugee co-petitioners, successfully argued that the directive contravened the Kenyan constitution and international refugee conventions. The policy failed to take into account the various categories of refugees resident in urban areas.

The co-petitioners had all been resident in Nairobi for some years and were economically self-sufficient with strong roots in the country. A heterogeneous group, they comprised professionals, business people and students. All had different reasons for not wanting to go to the camps. Some feared persecution, while others wanted to protect their livelihoods or access to education or specialised healthcare.

All were aware of the situation in Kakuma and Daadab refugee camps: their oppressive climates, the overcrowding, the lack of services and employment opportunities, and the insecurity, particularly for women and girls.

The High Court ruled in favour of the case brought by Kituo; it seemed a sort of compromise could be found, such as clear criteria on the exceptional grounds in which the movement of refugees could be restricted. Instead of seeking the middle ground, the government issued a second directive.

This time the case is being taken by nine Somali businessmen, representing a group of 500 fellow refugees, in Nairobi. Once again, they argued their specific circumstances were not considered before the directive was issued. Despite a court injunction temporarily halting removals until a final judgment has been issued, deportations to Somalia and relocations to the camps have continued. The government seems intent on moving ahead, a one-size-fits-all-approach.

Unintended targets. Comprising nearly 80% of the refugee population in Kenya, Somalis are the worst affected. Rather than go to the camps, as many as 100,000 Somalis are believed to have gone home. Despite serious security concerns expressed by the UN refugee agency, the same is likely to happen again.

Yet, refugees from all communities were affected. Many have again been forced to stop working and even close their businesses. NGO service providers are unsure how to react. Last time around, many donors drastically reduced funding, as they feared that providing services to refugees in these circumstances was not sustainable.

The limited healthcare and educational opportunities available to refugees have become even less accessible. In December 2012, there were more than 7,000 refugee children enrolled in primary schools in Nairobi supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service, a few months later this number had dropped to 4,000.

While numbers later temporarily recovered, numbers have dropped significantly. Another 200 or so minors have been separated from their parents or guardians who have gone into hiding or been sent to the camps. Families live in fear and with good reason. What will happen to these children is unknown; at best, they will miss out on years of valuable schooling.

Moving forward. Leaving aside the fears expressed to the High Court, how the government plans on hosting urban refugees within the existing camps has yet to be explained. Both Dadaab and Kakuma camps, hosting some 550,000 refugees, are already overcrowded and underfunded. Funding has failed to keep pace with needs as the numbers of arrivals has almost doubled since 2008.

With significant numbers of refugees arriving in Kakuma rapidly increasing, there is an urgent need for additional space, infrastructure, services and above all protection. Given the directive reduces many economically self-sufficient refugees to dependency on humanitarian aid, it could be harder to get funds from international donors.

Although the Kenyan political establishment seems set on the repatriation of Somali refugees, with high levels of insecurity in Somalia and a commitment to voluntary return, large-scale return is not imminent. The choices are bleak: increased numbers living in deteriorating camps, or local integration in urban areas.

As the High Court case illustrated, refugees make a sizeable contribution to Kenyan society. But recent experiences have made many acutely aware of the fragility of their situation. All of us need security and stability. It is difficult to invest in a society where your future is far from certain.

Kenyans generously welcome one of the world's largest refugee populations, and, as such, deserve international support. Increased support should indeed take into account the legitimate security concerns of Kenyans; but this rigid policy not only risks violating human rights, it prevents refugees from contributing to their new communities. Ultimately, a vulnerable and insecure refugee population is in nobody's interest.

James Stapleton, International Communications Coordinator, Jesuit Refugee Service and Professor of Human Rights in the John Felice Rome Center of the Loyola University Chicago

Countries Related to this Region

(function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i['GoogleAnalyticsObject']=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,'script','//','ga'); ga('create', 'UA-62913453-1', 'auto'); ga('send', 'pageview');