Safe Haven No More

The Kenyan government is set to impose drastic measures aimed at Somali refugees. Nicholas Bishop considers the ramifications.

By: /
29 January, 2013
By: Nicholas Bishop

With general elections scheduled for March 4, and al-Shabaab-linked terror incidents inspiring fear across the country, the Kenyan government is set to impose drastic measures aimed at both refugees legally registered with the UN and illegal migrants from Somalia. The directive, issued on Dec. 13, would see Somalis in Kenyan cities removed to the four Dadaab refugee camps in the country’s northeast.

The announcement of the new measures came after the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs moved to limit new registrations to designated camps while placing an immediate prohibition on aid activities by humanitarian groups to urban-based refugees.

Former government spokesperson Moses Kuria, speaking with the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti on Jan. 15, stated that Kenya has done more than its fair share in dealing with the Somali refugee crisis. He noted, for instance, that Kenya has granted safe haven to Somalis for the past 22 years, since the 1991 collapse of the Barre regime. Kuria further noted the success of the Kenyan military intervention against al-Shabaab, the militant Islamic group with ties to al-Qaeda that has widely destabilized Somalia. He now believes, as many Kenyans do, that it is safe for Somalis to return home and rebuild their country.

In late December, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his Somali counterpart, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, signed a 10-point communiqué pledging to work towards a resolution of the refugee crisis in co-operation with the international community.

Camp Fromair

A section of the massive refugee camp at Dadaab (the world’s largest), near the Kenyan-Somali border in northeastern Kenya (Reuters).

International rights groups are hoping the government directive is little more than political opportunism at election time and will fall short of the promised expulsions. However, the Commissioner for Refugee Affairs, Badu Katelo, stated on Dec. 18 that relocations would begin sometime in January and would be carried out in a “humane, safe and dignified manner.” Yet, the manner in which the proposed removals are conducted is clearly not the issue – it is the act itself that has created an atmosphere of disbelief and frustration.

As a direct result of the removal notice, roughly 80,000 Somalis, fearing a government crackdown and continuing xenophobic attacks, have already voluntarily repatriated themselves across the border rather than live in overcrowded and often violent refugee camps. For those who choose to remain, if living conditions worsen, ethnic tensions between Kenyans and Somalis will continue their violent downward spiral.

The day-to-day in a refugee camp

According to the UN, the four active Dadaab camps were originally designed for a population of 150,000, yet are home to half a million refugees (80 per cent of whom are women and children), making living conditions difficult at best. Only 60 per cent of camp inhabitants have access to adequate housing and toilet facilities, and just half of elementary school age children are enrolled in education. Many camp refugees have languished in idleness for years, gradually giving up on returning home, being resettled in Kenya or a third country, or ever resuming any kind of normal existence.

The Dadaab camps are administered entirely by UN agencies and international NGOs, and are widely believed to be the greatest single conglomeration of refugees on the planet. They are so large, in fact, that they represent the fourth-biggest human settlement in Kenya.

Currently, there are 60,000 UN-registered refugees living in urban areas, plus an estimated 150,000 unregistered Somalis living in Kenya. These figures bring the total Somali population of refugees and illegal migrants to upwards of 700,000. If other foreign nationals, predominately from Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are included, there are more than one million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons on Kenyan soil. This is a very high number for a poor country with limited resources to deal with, and many Kenyans see it as an unbearable strain on the state.

The 2009 Kenyan census showed that ethnic Somalis make up about eight per cent, or 2.4 million, of the Kenyan population of 40 million.


Refugee rights versus state rights

Under the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, established by the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, art. 33(1), states have an obligation not to return refugees to “the frontiers of territories where his/her life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

In contrast, and of serious consequence for Kenyans who are increasingly fearful of al-Shabaab terror attacks, refugees may not claim protection when there are “reasonable grounds” for regarding the refugee as a danger to the national security of the host country (1951 UN Convention, art. 33(2)). Kenyan officials are concerned that registered refugees are providing a legitimate cover to terrorist activities, and believe that, in the interests of national security, Somalis should be removed from urban areas prior to outright repatriation.

In a similar vein, both Ethiopia and Kenya, which have hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees for decades, have initiated a practice referred to as “refugee warehousing,” whereby the protracted humanitarian situation has meant refugees are confined to camps, and their access to education and employment is gravely reduced.

Although one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the 1951 convention is freedom of movement within the host nation, in national laws, Kenya has specified that the free movement of refugees may be restricted, and designated living areas imposed. Rights groups have responded with outrage, stating that any course of action taken against refugee populations must be proportionate, while adhering to the tenets of international law. In other words, although Kenya has legitimate security concerns, evicting an enormous refugee population in order to remove the potential threat of a small number of terrorists is unquestionably disproportionate. A careful line must be drawn to disassociate those involved in terror from the mainstream population.


Newly arrived Somali refugees wait in line to be registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at Dagahaley camp in Dadaab (Reuters).

Furthermore, sending an additional 60,000 Somali refugees to idle in camps that are completely overburdened and under-resourced, while taking away their ability to act as significant economic contributors, is a negative-sum game for the Kenyan state.

A March 2011 report by Chatham House illuminates the emergence of a “flourishing … parallel economy” begun by Somali migrants in Kenya. Following the 1991 collapse of the state in Somalia, this informal economy was largely uprooted and moved across the border, “bringing a new level of competition to Nairobi” and “substantially reducing the cost of goods and services.”

Although clearly a sign that refugee populations are not always a burden on the host nation, the success of Somali business ventures has led to ethnic tension. This situation is complicated by the “ill defined … boundaries between business, politics and religion,” which has seen some clandestine support for militant Islam in the region coming out of Somali businesses in Kenya.

As well, despite Somalia’s new government and constitution, hostilities with al-Shabaab, although subsiding, are far from over – it is still unsafe for all Somalis to return home. This reality was aptly demonstrated by the recent death of two French soldiers in southern Somalia.

Paranoia or well-founded fear?

Since Kenyan troops joined a multinational contingent and crossed into Somalia to battle al-Shabaab in October 2011, an increasing number of reprisal terror attacks have hit Kenya. In November, a mini-bus bombing that killed at least seven was blamed on Somalis and led to street clashes between Kenyans and ethnic Somalis in Nairobi.

Now, the majority Christian population (83 per cent, according to the 2009 census) fears attending church due to acts of terrorism committed by a small faction of the minority population of Muslim foreigners, and paranoid group-think has led to scapegoating en masse. A xenophobic atmosphere has taken hold of Kenya. Underlining this social construct are a simmering tribal discord (69 languages are spoken in Kenya) and a fast-approaching general election, which will see a new president assume office.

It is of paramount importance to note that the disputed 2007 election was marred by violent inter-ethnic clashes by opposing political factions, which resulted in an estimated 1,500 deaths, and required a mediated settlement by then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Justifications for the recent string of ethnically motivated violence are based in fear and insecurity. Likewise, some politicians who are eager to gain political points ahead of the election have accused Somalis and other foreigners of undermining the Kenyan state and being a drain on the economy.

Shockingly, members of the Kenyan police force have been known to refer to refugees as “ATMs,” because of the bribes they are forced to pay to avoid arrest and other forms of harassment.

The new measures also seem to provide domestic security forces with a carte blanche to arbitrarily harass, threaten, detain, and arrest urban Somalis regardless of their refugee status.  Fleeing from al-Shabaab to Kenya only to be accused of being terrorists may be eerily reminiscent of an all-too-familiar past for many Somalis.

The reality check

Fortunately, actually rounding up and evicting 60,000 UN-registered refugees living in Kenyan cities would require a huge effort on the part of the government. Hopefully this will act as a strong deterrent.

Rounding up civilian refugee populations and sending them to camps has a number of numbing historical precedents, and the Kenyan government would do well to avoid evoking their memory. If Somali refugees are forcibly transferred to camps, it will further complicate a dire humanitarian crisis in a region that is no stranger to bloodshed, drought, and protracted famine.


Despairingly, it is reasonable to think that until terror threats cease to be perceived as a clear and present danger to Kenyan sovereignty, those associated with the terrorist threat in the psyche of many Kenyans – in this case, the entire Somali community – are likely to face an increasing number of xenophobic attacks.

The results of the upcoming general elections combined with past election violence may provide yet another excuse to attack high-profile refugee populations like the residents of Eastleigh in Nairobi. Known popularly as “Little Mogadishu,” it is home to tens of thousands of Somalis, and, unfortunately for legitimate refugees and Kenyan Somalis, the area is a transit point for illegal arms and has been used to hide both al-Shabaab fighters and sympathizers.

Staying focused

Just as our attention is pulled in so many different directions by the maelstrom of recent news events, including the expanding military campaign in Mali, the eurozone financial crisis, and our own domestic issues (be they poverty facing First Nations, youth unemployment, or the rising costs of fighter jets), Canada would do well to reprioritize and redevelop its relationship with the UN.

Canada’s reputation has taken a beating of late, not only because Canada voted against Palestinian statehood, but also because it has been so vocal about the consequences of UN recognition, despite widespread international support for the initiative. The Harper government’s frequent criticisms of the UN have corresponded with Canada’s withdrawal from a number of UN agencies and initiatives – most notably, the Kyoto Protocol – in favour of bilateral agreements.

The value of multilateral efforts to resolve endemic global issues like the plight of refugee populations cannot be overstated. The UN and its refugee body, the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), have the international standing and the ability to lobby the Kenyan government to effectively improve its slowly deteriorating treatment of Somali refugees and the Somali community in general. The support of UN member states is fundamental to this effort.

Canada can steadily recuperate its tarnished image by playing to its historical strengths, one of which is valuing human rights.

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