Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kenya: Attacks bring new risks for Kenya's urban Somalis

Tens of thousands of Somali refugees live in Kenya’s cities, but they are often forgotten amid the region’s myriad refugee problems. So on our recent visit to Kenya, we asked how these people have been affected by the (presumed) Al Shabab attacks on Kenyan refugee camps further afield.

The recent insecurity in the Dadaab camp has had an enormous, immediate impact on the nearly 500,000 refugees living there. Retaliations by police against refugees in Dadaab were very serious, and whole communities – the vast majority of whom had no connection to the perpetrators of the attacks – have experienced indiscriminate round-ups and police violence. We wondered if Somalis in Kenyan cities like Nairobi were experiencing the same problems.

In meetings with experts and activists, we were told about rising xenophobia against Somalis – which extends to Kenyans of Somali ethnicity, not just Somali refugees. One Kenyan refugee rights activist said she was pained to hear even her own friends making anti-Somali comments and questioning why she would work on their behalf – something they would not have done in the past. She noted seeing Kenyans moving away from people who looked Somali at bus stops, claiming that they were worried they were Al Shabab.

Of course, we’ve seen similar phenomena – and similar discrimination against Muslim communities – all over the world following terrorist attacks. But as one refugee in Nairobi told us, “We suffer two times. We suffer harassment by Al Shabab in Somalia, and then we suffer again in Kenya because people think we are Al Shabab.”

On a more positive note, several lawyers assisting the Somali refugee community told us they had not seen a significant increase in arbitrary arrests or police harassment since the Dadaab attacks and Kenya’s invasion of Somalia. They attribute this to years of work educating authorities about urban refugees’ rights. For example, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has helped train Kenyan magistrates and judges, and also set up the Urban Refugee Protection Network to bring stakeholders together. It seems that this work is paying off – yet another example of how UNHCR’s 2009 urban refugee policy can succeed when host governments and local groups join in the effort.

Given the chance, urban refugees could make a huge contribution to Kenya’s economy. According to the Kenyan Refugee Act, they should be able to apply for work permits, but these are rarely granted. We hope this will change. After all, these are refugees who have decided not to receive assistance in camps and are trying to make their own way in the city. Many have shown incredible qualities of entrepreneurship.

But many people in Kenya expressed fears of a major step-backwards, and wondered what would happen to urban Somalis if Al Shabab launched a major attack on a Kenyan city. To mitigate this, there must be a more open discussion – involving Kenyan politicians, community leaders, and the media – about how to address rising xenophobia against Somalis right now.