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Somali Refugees Struggle in Shadow of Forced Return

Kenya’s November deadline to shut down camps and repatriate Somali refugees leaves a community living in dangerous limbo, with some contemplating escape to Europe.

Written by Angela Wells Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Muhumed Surow grieves following the burial of his 12-month-old daughter Liin Muhumed Surowlays at UNHCR's Ifo Extension camp outside Dadaab, Eastern Kenya, 100 km (60 miles) from the Somali border, on August 6, 2011. Liin died of malnutrition 25 days after reaching the camp, Mumumed said. AP/Jerome Delay

Said Abdullah’s daily life in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has become a testament to the struggle to survive for Somali refugees in an increasingly hostile country. The 42-year-old clothes seller turned rights activist divides his time in the Somali-dominated neighborhood of Eastleigh between detention centers, courtrooms and community meetings.

He is available to help those caught up in police roundups get out of jail; to advise new arrivals on how to register with authorities; and to join Somali community leaders in petitioning the Kenyan government for more workable legislation to govern the lives of around 600,000 Somali refugees in the East African country.

The already uphill battle took a turn for the worse in May 2016 when the government abruptly announced plans to close all refugee camps within its borders and decommission its Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), effectively leaving unregistered arrivals in limbo.

The government’s stance, although softened slightly by a partial reopening of the DRA, has been accompanied by a welter of alarming and often contradictory statements over the repatriation of refugees to Somalia. The specter of forced returns now haunts the refugees.

“Just thinking about the idea of going back to Somalia gives us nightmares,” said Said. “My children were born here and they’re proud of that. We want our right as refugees to live in Kenya or to go to a third country legally.

“Just give us that chance,” he pleads.

Like many Somali refugees, Said fled to Kenya in the early 1990s after a vicious civil war consumed his home country, settling in Nairobi. His two biological children live with relatives in the Netherlands, but Said cares for seven more children, mainly nieces and nephews.

Since the Kenyan ultimatum that says camps must be emptied by this November, much of the attention has focused on Dadaab, a complex of five interlocking refugee camps near the border with Somalia. But the fate of hundreds of thousands more Somalis who have moved to urban areas like Eastleigh, which is known as Little Mogadishu, also hangs in the balance.

Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery chose the beginning of World Refugee Week to announce that urban refugees “must move to their designated camps to avoid conflicts with the law.”

One in 10 of Kenya’s refugees have been formally documented in Nairobi and retain the right to live in the city, but many of them experience arbitrary arrest, routine extortion and police harassment.

There are widespread fears of a repeat of the notorious Usalama Watch in 2014, during which thousands of Somalis were rounded up in an effort to force refugees out of the city. It was a violent and indiscriminate operation, according to the independent watchdog Human Rights Watch, in which many lost homes and businesses, some were raped and others died.

“I know we are going to suffer,” said Said. “No one has advocated for those who died in 2014, those who lost their hands or legs, their jobs, their loved ones. It’s been forgotten. Please, please, we don’t want that to be repeated.”

Kenyan security officials insist that the camps and refugee communities in the cities are being used as cover by al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist militia that controls parts of south and central Somalia. The government has contended that Dadaab has lost its “civilian and humanitarian character” but delivered no evidence to back this claim.

Activists, including Said, point out that the refugees have the greatest interest in keeping the peace and rooting out extremists. Many of them have fled areas controlled by al-Shabaab to protect their children from being enlisted.

Somali participation in efforts like Nymuba Kumi, where a voluntary security monitor is appointed for every 10 households, are evidence of this determination. “We are ready to engage the government and help resolve any security problem,” Said insisted.

Police harassment, the partial closure of the DRA and the subsequent xenophobic rhetoric has paralyzed entire communities, especially new arrivals who do not yet have access to documents.

Far from a security burden, the refugee community has made an economic contribution to Kenya, experts argue. A report by the Life and Peace Institute found that ethnic Somalis had invested $1.5 billion in the economy in Eastleigh and account for 25 percent of Nairobi’s annual tax revenue. “Refugees, alongside local Kenyans, help drive that economy,” it concluded.

The sheer size of the Dadaab complex, which shelters nearly 330,000 refugees, makes it the third largest settlement in Kenya. Billions of dollars in international funding to support Dadaab has created 10,000 jobs in the area for Kenyans, as well as an entire ecosystem of support services.

“We are taxpayers, we work hard. We’re learning from Kenyans, yet we’re also contributing and allowing Kenyans to learn from us,” said Said.

As many in his community keep a tense vigil to see whether the Kenyan government will go through with its public pronouncements, Said fears that some will choose the hard, illegal road to Europe, a choice he calls a “suicide mission.”

There are already 1 million displaced people living in desperate conditions within the borders of Somalia and no end in sight to the long war waged between the country’s U.N.-backed government and al-Shabaab. As well as war, in recent years persistent droughts have led to famines that have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Eastleigh is a main departure point for Somalis making life-threatening journeys across the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea. Somalis are consistently one of the largest contingents of these desperate people.

“Refugees are leaving for Europe [from Eastleigh]. We know people who’ve died. No one wants to risk being killed with a bullet, but they will risk dying at sea,” said Said.

“Fleeing from your death to go toward death is a decision; it’s dying with freedom and the hope of reaching safety. That’s being human.”

Said Abdullah’s real name has been withheld for the sake of his security.

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