Kenya: Failure to register Somali refugees putting them at risk of starvation and abuse


Victor Nyamori
Amnesty International

It has been a year since the Kenyan government’s plan to shut down Dadaab refugee camp was scuppered. The High Court deemed the decision un-constitutional and ordered the government to continue giving asylum to new refugees. But if anyone thought the landmark ruling would herald the end of years of suffering for Somali refugees, they will by now be bitterly disappointed.

The government, while not overtly rejecting the ruling, has quietly disregarded it, mainly by denying refugees registration and much-needed identity documents.

Ahmed (not his real name), a father of five, had no option but to flee from his village in Baidoa, a southwestern district of Somalia which is suffering from a severe drought. When he saw his donkey die from a lack of water, Ahmed knew he and his family had to flee or die. He was determined to find a place where his wife and children would be safe from not only the drought, but also the armed conflict that has left about 5.4 million Somalis – approximately half the population – in need of humanitarian aid.

Ahmed thought about travelling southward towards the capital Mogadishu where most humanitarian organisation have set up, but feared running into Al-Shabaab checkpoints and his 17-year-old son being conscripted by the militants. In the end, he decided to travel west towards Dadaab refugee camp, in Kenya.

After a long trek to cross the border, Ahmed now finds himself in limbo in Dadaab. As an undocumented refugee, he has no access to basics like food and shelter for his children. The Kenyan government’s refusal to certify Ahmed as a refugee and give him the necessary documents is denying him these most fundamental rights.

And Ahmed is not alone. According to UNHCR, at the end of November 2017, there were about of 5,400 undocumented Somalis in Dadaab, some of whom had been repatriated back to Somalia but returned. Local NGOs say the number could be even higher. A Kenyan NGO which monitors border crossings between Somalia and Kenya has reported that more than 24,000 people crossed into Kenya from Somalia in 2017 alone, most of them citing general insecurity and drought.

Undocumented refugees lack access to goods and services offered by charities, including food, shelter and medical care. As a result, they are left with no option but to beg from their registered counterparts, who have very little themselves, especially since the UN World Food Programme cut rations in October. A lack of identity documents also means refugees live with the constant fear of being arrested and deported back to Somalia. In January alone, a local NGO offering legal aid to refugees reported that 31 Somali nationals, including children, were arrested in Garissa, northeastern Kenya, and charged with being unlawfully present in Kenya. The offence carries a penalty of three months in jail upon conviction, unless the suspect can pay a fine of between $100 and $1000, which most refugees don’t have.

Without registration papers, unaccompanied minors and children who have been separated from their families making the arduous journey into Kenya from Somalia are also at heightened risk of exploitation, child labour and early marriage.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, which is meant to register refugees, is only concerned with reducing their numbers in Dadaab. It is not registering new arrivals and has cut back its operations in the camp, in blatant contravention of last year’s court order.

The Kenyan authorities are violating their own laws, including the Kenya Refugee Act of 2006, and their commitment during a regional IGAD grouping’s summit in March last year to continue providing asylum to Somalis.

Kenya also has obligations under international law to protection refugees. It is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Optional Protocol, as well as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, all of which oblige it to grant access to asylum to those seeking it – including Somalis.

It is high time the Kenyan government stepped back from the human rights precipice. It must start fulfilling its obligations to refugees and respect court rulings upholding their rights. No-one chooses to be a refugee. We all want to live in peace and dignity in our own countries, and to be treated with kindness and respect when we can’t.

Victor Nyamori is the Regional Refugee Coordinator at Amnesty International’s East Africa Regional Office