Kenya’s harsh new security laws put hundreds of thousands of refugees at risk

A protest against security measures in Nairobi. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Kenya has passed a controversial amendment to the country’s existing security laws, days after heated debates led to brawling on the floor of the Kenyan Parliament. Despite the fracas, the bill was passed with only minor changes, to the dismay of observers at home and abroad.

Domestic and international attention has mainly focused on the impact the bill would have on the period of detention without charge, the tapping of communications without court consent, the erosion of media freedom and the limitations placed upon the right to protest. But the world has paid less attention to the severe implications the new amendments have for refugees in Africa’s second-largest refugee-hosting country.

For Kenya’s half a million refugees, many of whom have escaped diabolical threats across the Somali border, this is very bad news indeed.

Round them up

The Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 changes Kenya’s 2006 Refugee Act in two vital ways: it seeks to limit the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the country to 150,000, and it further enforces an encampment policy, limiting refugees to the country’s two sprawling, remote camps in Dadaab and Kakuma.

The United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that over the next year the current number of 500,000 refugees in Kenya is will rise. With continuing conflict in Somalia and South Sudan, placing strict limits on the number of people who can access state protection will endanger lives.

A strict encampment policy also bucks a recent trend of moving away from refugee camps as a means of addressing refugee situations. In July 2014 UNHCR released a new policy that embraced alternatives to camps, with the aim of helping refugees “exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities.”

This follows previous moves by UNHCR, such as its 2009 Urban Policy, to get away from what the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, called the “outmoded image that most refugees live in sprawling camps of UNHCR tents”.

Of course, having hundreds of thousands of refugees still confined to camps is good for neither Kenya nor the refugees themselves. It is important to move beyond the myths that refugees are dependent on humanitarian assistance and a burden to their hosts.

A dangerous conflation

This is all part of a dangerous tendency to conflate refugees and terrorists. Ever since Kenyan troops’ incursion into Somalia in 2011 brought increased al-Shabaab attacks to Kenyan soil, refugees have been at the forefront of an often heavy-handed response by the Kenyan state.

In December 2012, after a series of grenade attacks by dissidents, it was announced that no further refugee registrations would happen in Kenya’s cities, and that refugees should be moved to the camps. It was claimed by Badu Katelo, Kenya’s acting commissioner for refugee affairs, that this was because “refugees, particularly those living in urban centres, are contributing to insecurity in the country.”

At this time, abuse and extortion by police of Somali refugees in Kenya’s capital was widely reported, in which victims were routinely described as “terrorists” and seen as “walking ATMs” by police, who demanded payments to free them.

Following a legal challenge led by the NGO Kituo Cha Sheria, Kenya’s High Court quashed these plans in July 2013, upholding refugee’s rights to dignity and movement.

The situation changed again, however, with the Westgate Shopping Mall attack of September 2013, Kenya’s biggest terrorist incident since the US embassy bombing in 1998. The heightened security situation this triggered once again saw refugees, particularly those in urban areas, among the worst affected.

In March 2014, Kenya once again pushed forward with attempts to limit refugees to the camps. Joseph Ole Lenku, cabinet secretary of the ministry of interior and coordination of national government, reiterated that all refugees outside of the camps must be relocated.

This was justified by “the emerging security challenge in our urban centres.” While Kenyans were told to report any refugees found outside the camps to the authorities, the authorities promised to deploy an additional 500 police officers in cities “to enhance security and surveillance”.

The ensuing counter-terrorist operation, “Usalama Watch,” saw Kenya’s Somali community once again become scapegoats, with “thousands arrested and ill-treated, forcibly relocated and hundreds unlawfully expelled to a war-torn country”. The operation was commonly referred to as “Operation Sanitisation of Eastleigh,” named after Nairobi’s principal Somali neighbourhood.

Somali refugees, who make up the largest refugee population in Kenya, were among the worst affected. A recent field report by Refugee International described the “increased levels of abuse, extortion, and harassment by the Kenyan police.”

One major refugee response was the “I am Not a Terrorist” photo campaign, which called attention to the culture of fear that is punishing both Somali refugees and Somali-Kenyans ever more harshly.

Wrong path

Make no mistake: Kenya’s security situation is grave indeed, and attempts to address it should in principle be welcomed. The recent mass killings by al-Shabaab have shown just how dangerous the group still is, despite the assassination of its co-founder Ahmed Abdi Godane by a US drone in September 2014.

But these very real security challenges have been used to justify the erosion of protection and the rights of refugees in Kenya. The results will only further divide Kenyan society, forcing refugees underground and driving more people into the arms of al-Shabaab.

Writing during the Usalama Watch operation, one commenter noted: “We are not safer. We have created more grievance. We have exposed ourselves to attack – yet again.” Kenya must better reconcile its security concerns with both the needs of refugees and its responsibilities under international law.

Little over a year ago, as part of the signing of the Tripartite Agreement Governing the Voluntary Repatriation of Somali Refugees Living in Kenya, Kenya agreed to “continue to provide protection and assistance to all refugees until durable solutions are attained in accordance with national and international law”.

Kenya must remember this, along with its responsibilities as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and not allow changes to laws aimed at addressing terrorism steamroller over the rights of refugees. If it continues down this treacherous path, the consequences for all concerned will be dire.