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Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp is the largest of its kind in the world: a sprawling, jam-packed community housing nearly half a million vulnerable Somali refugees. During a visit this week to one section of the camp, known as Kambioos, my Refugees International colleague and I met a young Somali man named Ahmed who had just arrived by bus from Nairobi.
Having fled conflict in Mogadishu for the second time (he lived as a refugee in Yemen in the mid-1990s), he registered as a refugee in Kenya last June. After settling in the bustling Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi – also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’ – Ahmed managed to get job as a waiter. He certainly wasn’t rich, but he was building a life for himself.
Then everything changed. On December 18th, citing national security concerns, the Kenyan government announced that refugees like Ahmed could no longer live in the nation’s cities. They were supposed to pack up their belongings and report to the camps in the north – Dadaab for Somalis, and Kakuma for refugees from all other nations. Kenya’s High Court temporarily blocked this plan last week, but the fallout has continued and the threat to refugees remains. Fearing they could be rounded up and forced into camps, refugees like Ahmed are looking for other places to live. Thousands have already fled the capital city, while police abuse and extortion of refugee communities have skyrocketed.
When we asked Ahmed why he left Eastleigh, he said that he feared the police. Last November, he was severely beaten by members of the security forces. He showed us where his teeth were smashed in. Once the government’s refugee relocation plan was announced, he decided that life in the city was no longer an option.
Over the past several days, my colleague and I interviewed a number of urban refugees who have described a spike in abuse, specifically in Eastleigh – including house-to-house raids, arbitrary arrests and “fines” (or, more accurately, forced bribes to police officers) of up to $2,200, beatings, and the destruction of refugees’ identification documents. We met one man who was arrested on a false charge when he tried to help a group of women who were being harassed by police. The police shoved the women (one of whom was pregnant) and tried to remove their veils. Refugee abuse has always been a problem in Nairobi, but refugees and advocates insist that is has never been this bad.
For years, Kenya had not only allowed refugees to live in urban areas, but together with the UN Refugee Agency, the government actually expanded registration centers and increased access to education and health services. These changes gave refugees – and especially thousands of long-suffering Somalis – a modicum of dignity and stability. But now, the government’s dangerous plan could wipe out everything that has been achieved. The Kenyan High Court will reconvene on the issue next month. However, the U.S. government – which is a major aid and security partner to Kenya – should urge the government in Nairobi to end this uncertainty now by withdrawing its relocation plan and ceasing its media statements that profess a link between insecurity and all refugees. .
Rolling back this proposal is vital not just for the situation here in Kenya. About half of the world’s refugees live in cities, where they can earn a living and avoid dependence on humanitarian aid.
On the day we met Ahmed, the young Somali man in Kambioos, he had just been assigned his own plot in the camp and given a tent and food ration card. His basic life needs would be met, for now. But his chance for a life of self-reliance and independence in Nairobi has been ripped away.