Amnesty International highlights challenges faced by Somali refugees

Written by Nicole Cunha-GomesIntern, Heshima Kenya

After a grenade assault took the lives of her mother, father and brother, Fatuma escaped from Somalia to Nairobi, Kenya, in hopes of creating a brighter future for herself. In 2009, Fatuma found Heshima Kenya and began rebuilding her life with hope and dignity. However, the current precarious political situation for Somalis in Kenya threatens her progress.

In the field report Somalis are Scapegoats in Kenya’s Counter-Terror Crackdown, Amnesty International highlights the recent increase in tension between the Kenyan government and the Somali refugee community in Kenya. On December 13, 2012, the Kenyan government announced a directive to forcibly relocate all refugees to camps. Two years later, in response to attacks in Mombasa and Eastleigh by Somali-based terrorist organization Al Shabaab, the Kenyan government turned its attention more specifically to Somali refugees in the country by launching Operation Usalama Watch: a security initiative targeting asylum-seekers and refugees in Kenya who are thought to be guilty of perpetuating acts of terrorism in the country.

For this report, Amnesty International interviewed asylum-seekers and refugees affected by Operation Usalama Watch to understand how this security initiative has impacted their lives. The report uncovers human rights violations carried out by Kenyan security personnel who allegedly intimidated and harassed their victims, at times using violence to ascertain their immigration status: many were accused of carrying fake documentation and forced to pay bribes to avoid detention; those who could not afford the bribes were taken to unsanitary detention centers and deprived of food, water and bathroom facilities. Amnesty International reports that at least two people have died during Operation Usalama Watch.

Over 1000 refugees have been forcibly relocated to refugee camps since May 2014. There has also been an increase in the number of people requesting to go to the camps because of their fear of the Kenyan security forces and desperation as they run out of money from extortion. A number of people have resorted to self-exile; by staying at home they hope to avoid being stopped by police, forced to pay bribes, and relocated to refugee camps.

Somalis in Kenya, like Fatuma, find themselves stuck in a legal conundrum. They are required to register officially as refugees to avoid arrest and expulsion; however, the fear of terrorism in Kenya has made it difficult for Somalis to be granted refugee status. Amnesty International recommends, therefore, that the Government of Kenya abandon Operation Usalama Watch in favor of pursuing previous efforts to work alongside the Somali government and the UNCHR to create a framework for the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees.

At Heshima Kenya, the Girls' Empowerment Project and Outreach Program continue to operate at full capacity. The safety and security of the girls and women at Heshima Kenya is our top priority; therefore, we are committed to working alongside the Kenyan government to safeguard the rights of vulnerable refugee girls and women during this period of insecurity and unrest. A misappropriation of blame and a misuse of rhetoric work together to obscure the distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘terrorists’, blurring the lines of accountability. Many of the young refugee girls we serve were forced to flee their home countries because of terrorism; unfortunately, the current situation in Kenya means that these girls, sadly, now find themselves affected by the same acts of terrorism that forced them to flee in the first place.

Heshima Kenya thanks Amnesty International for publishing such an informative report. If you would like to help vulnerable refugee girls like Fatuma, take action and donate now to Heshima Kenya!

To view the full report: Amnesty International Report