Living in Fear in Nairobi

It’s a sunny morning in the city of Nairobi. I am greeted on a busy street by my friend, Fatima*. Fatima tells me about the difficulty she has had since I was last in Nairobi a year ago. She is a refugee from Somalia. She and her mother fled Somalia in 2009 after an attack by the Al Shabab terrorist organization. Her father was killed and her brothers were ‘lost’.  She and her mother arrived in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, but her mother did not live long after their arrival.  On her own at the age of 14, Fatima, like many young unaccompanied women, chose to come to Nairobi. 

Unfortunately, Fatima faces many insecurities and dangers in Nairobi. In the wake of multiple terrorist attacks by Al Shabab within Kenya, Kenyan security services are cracking down against the Somali community. Many refugees have suffered as a result. Last March, the Kenyan government launched Operation Usalama Watch. While the aim of this security operation was to root out Al Shabab members and sympathizers living in Kenyan cities, thousands of Somali refugees suffered severe physical abuse, extortion, and arbitrary detention at the hands of the Kenyan police over a three month period.   

I ask Fatima how things have been in Nairobi for her since Usalama Watch. She tells me the arrests have decreased, but the targeting of Somali refugees for bribes has not. In fact, she and several other refugee women, from various neighborhoods in Nairobi, speak to me about how the police are increasingly targeting women. When I ask why, they all say “the police know we will pay and will gather the money faster because we do not want to be in jail or separated from our children.” When I ask Fatima and other Somali refugee women if they feel safer in Nairobi now than during Usalama Watch they all respond “not really.” They worry that if they are detained, they will be assaulted while in custody. The general consensus amongst the refugees I speak to is that the intensity level has lowered, but the fear of what will happen if another terror attack happens lingers. They ask “then what will the Kenyan authorities do?”  

Unfortunately, within just days of my conversation with Fatima, Al Shabab launched a tragic attack on Garissa University. One hundred and forty-seven students were killed. In its struggle to determine how best to respond to Al Shabab’s deadly attacks, the Kenyan government has once again targeted the Somali refugee population.  Shortly after the attack, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto called for the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp. 

If Dadaab is closed, many refugees could be pressured to return to Somalia. However, Fatima and the other women I met say they do not feel that it is safe to return. They would like to be resettled to another country, and wait for the call for a resettlement interview. But they don’t know what they will do until then, or perhaps more likely, if the call never comes. Ultimately, only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees are ever resettled in third countries.  

Kenya has been a gracious host to refugees for many years. Kenya also has a very real security problem. Unfortunately, Kenya and its partners in the war on terror are discussing security without much regard to the lives of the Somali refugees – many of whom are also victims of Al Shabab.  The Kenyan government has a responsibility to uphold the international and African conventions on refugee protection that it signed. Kenya can no longer continue to wage its war against Al Shabab on the backs of innocent Somali refugees.

*for protection a pseudonym was used

Jennifer Sewall is a resident fellow at Refugees International.

Photo: Somalis being rounded up by police in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood.