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Refugees in Kenya Are Being Forced Back to War-Torn Somalia

Meet Ifran. Last November, her life changed when police started bullying her into bribes, accusing her of being a terrorist, and threatening her with deportation.

Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi

Meet Ifran. She is a Somali refugee living in the Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya. She sells tea out of a cart to survive and usually makes about 150 Kenyan shillings per day (Less than $2). Last November, her life changed when police started bullying her into bribes, accusing her of being a terrorist, and threatening her with deportation. “The biggest issue we face is police harassment.” She told me when I visited Kenya at the end of 2013, “they ask if I’m illegal. I showed them my registration card and they took it from me and refused to give it back even after I give them money I made from selling tea.”


Ifran—along with the rest of the refugees in this story—asked me not to mention her last name because she feared retaliation. She is like over 400,000 other refugees in Kenya who are facing involuntary repatriation.

Inside Eastleigh especially, Police officers, who are part of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, indiscriminately detain Somali teenagers and young men—accusing them of being Al-Shabaab a terrorism group responsible for an the Westgate attack, threatening them with deportation.

The tension for Somali refugees started on September 21, 2013. Unidentified gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. The mass shooting lasted four days, left 67 people dead and over a hundred more wounded. Just two weeks later, Kenyan politicians used the incident to express outrage—but more importantly, to further their political agendas to shut down the refugee camps and kick Somalis out of the country.

On November 10, 2013, the UNHCR, the Kenyan government and the Somali government signed a refugee repatriation agreement. The agreement outlined the responsibilities and stressed that repatriation must be voluntary. The UNHCR quickly commented on the situation to say that it only supported the idea if the refugees left voluntarily, otherwise it would be a straight violation of the Geneva Convention.

Kenya’s responsibility included “providing security escorts for convoys to the Somali border, and continuing to provide protection and assistance for refugees until they leave” and the UNHCR included being “the guarantor of the voluntary, safe, and dignified nature of the process” The agreement, however, does not mention the fate of refugees who are not registered — “numbered at half a million by Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, who might not enjoy the protections, including against forced return.” This silence is a big one — especially when (mentioned during UNHCR’s November conference) Kenyan officials stopped giving out new registration cards and Kenyan police are accused of asking Somali refugees for their registration cards and then throwing them away or destroying them on a regular basis.


Fatima is a single mother of 9 children who came to Kenya in 2000. She also makes her living selling tea and told me, “because I am Somali I am discriminated against for jobs. They tell me ‘here is not Somalia. You should go back to Somalia.’ [Someone from] Nairobi City Council broke my teacart and detained me. Kenyan police ask for the little money I make from selling tea. They say I must pay something or they will take me to the police station and detain me [but then] my kids will not have anyone to take care of them. So I give them the money but now I have no money to give [my children] food.”

Inside the Dadaab refugee camp, the situation is not much better. Aid and food rations have been cut and supplies continue to dwindle. Aid organizations have to tighten their budgets as the nearby Syrian refugee camps grow. Doctors Without Borders warned that cutting aid plus lack of information could result in non-voluntary repatriation.

A Somali mother speaks during a refugee repatriation conference in Eastleigh

During a refugee repatriation conference in Eastleigh organized by UNHCR and other Kenyan NGOs in November, a Somali mother said “young boys are being arrested here [in Eastleigh] everyday and accused of being Al-Shabaab. All there people who are arrested everyday by the police, especially from Begani, even though they are innocent. Police are asking for sometimes 500,000, 1 million or 2 million Kenya shillings. Everyday our young boys do not go to school, they [stay] in the house because of the fear [of] being arrested and convicted.” Her account accompanied a roaring applause and nods of agreement from the other Somali women and men in the audience. The Q&A host responded, “thank you and please let’s keep the topic focused on questions about returning.” Apparently, the connection between the two was initially lost.


Sahara has lived in Kenya since 1994 and is the sole provider for her four children. She told me that one night the ATPU officers come to her house and attacked her family, “I was at the gate [to my home] when they came up behind us and started to beat us. A relative, [who was] a teenage boy who had come to visit me, he is 18 years [old]. They used force and violently took him away. We have not seen him since and they took money I had in my home, by force.”

The United States, along with the UK and Russia, trains the same police unit that is indiscriminately harassing and detaining Somalis. One Kenyan counterterrorism official used Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan military occupation as an example of Kenya’s anti-terrorism approach. He told Open Society Justice Initiative, “In this work you can’t go by the book.” He compared the extralegal approach to that of other countries explaining, “This is why there is Guantanamo Bay and why the British are detaining people in Afghanistan.”

Kenya receives funding from multiple western governments including the United Kingdom and the United States. The U.S., specifically, began funding Kenya’s Anti-terrorism police unit in 2003 with $10 million dollars. They’ve been funding them ever since; in 2013 alone the United States gave them $7.75 million dollars— none of which went to police salaries, but to training and equipment.

Mohammed is a 24 year old Somali Kenyan living in Eastleigh, says these tactics fuel the recruitment of Al-Shabaab. While the overwhelming majority of the people who are harassed have no ties to them, “there are two ways Al-Shabaab convinces the youth to join them, first they say they will assist refugees and give them money. And so they target very poor youth. Second, police harassment. They tell [the] youth if you are with us police will not harass you and this is how you get back at them.”


After an Al-Shabaab blast in Nairobi on March 31, 2014 that killed six people, the harassment and mass profiling escalated to unprecedented levels. Under the name Operation Usalama Watch, “Kenyan security forces have been storming homes in the capital, rounding up thousands of Somali refugees and Somali Kenyans,” according to Al Jazeera. Thousands of refugees, allegedly the ones that cannot afford to pay bribes, are being detained in Kasarani, which some refer to as a concentration camp. Some refugees without registration cards have been deported. Rape and beatings have been reported in detainment centers and one death has been confirmed.

In February, Amnesty International published a report called “No Place Like Home,” which argued that the climate of fear police officers were creating in refugee neighborhoods like Eastleigh was being used as a tool to deport Somali refugees under the guise of “voluntary repatriation.” Somali refugees cited poor living conditions, restrictions on their movement, inability to pay bribes and fear of rape and beatings from police officers as the reasons why people decided to return to Somalia. During past periods of incisive police harassment toward Somali refugees in Kenya (November 2012-January 2013), the numbers of Somali refugees who asked for permits that allow them to return to Somalia spiked to 3,200, while the monthly average is usually 150. Kenya’s Interior Minister accused Amnesty International of trying to slow down the repatriation process.


Ahmed, a 25-year-old refugee, told Amnesty International, “Here, in Kenya, it’s like a prison. At night we can’t leave the house, in the day we might be arrested. It is currently not safe in Somalia, we hear of killings and murders, but the situation here is very desperate…so instead of being here, let me go back. There is no freedom here.”

Many refugees cite police harassment as a reason some have returned to Somalia in recent months: Abdisalam, who came from Somalia 7 years ago told me, “they told us ‘voluntary repatriation’ [and] ‘people are not going to be forced’ but again, it is going to be forced repatriation because the police here are coming with violence and trying to harass people at the night time. So many people have already gone back to Somalia! I’ve seen another guy here who had a kiosk, he owned a shop here and even he sold it back. He said ‘I cannot stay here I was stopped three times, when I went to [jail] they told me…I had to pay 50,000 [Kenyan shillings].’”

Returning to a war-torn country is not particularly popular with the refugees..Ahmed, who practices christianity, fears he will not be protected if he goes back, “I will be in even more danger than everyone else. They will kill me.”

Sahara, who left for Kenya when she was 16 years old after witnessing Al-Shabaab kill both her mother and father told me, “I do not want to go back. I cannot because [of] the memories there.”

Refugee trauma is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine a terrible experience, usually involving death and sexual assault, that forces you out of your home and into another country. Your life is forcibly uprooted. The trauma causes two types of pain: psychological—flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, depression—and physical—headaches, nausea, loss of appetite. Returning triggers these feelings, but so does staying.

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