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Abused and neglected by the host

A new report by the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) seriously implicates the Government of Kenya and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the violation of basic human rights of refugees living in the country.
Zachary Ochieng

The tens of thousands of asylum seekers who flock to urban centres like Nairobi when fleeing persecution or conflict in neighbouring countries are largely unseen and forgotten by the government and UN policy-makers alike. Because of the policies of the host government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), these refugees live a precarious existence, frequently subject to the abuse of their most basic rights.

This is according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights watchdog. The November 2002 report titled “Hidden in plain view: Refugees living in Nairobi without protection” chronicles the plight of refugees and asylum seekers who come to Kenya and how their basic rights are violated by the Kenyan security officers and even the UNHCR.

The report notes that due to a magnet of relative stability in a sub-region that is rife with conflict, repression, and insecurity, Kenya has become home to refugees who have fled from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan.

Many of these people have been living in Kenya as refugees for over a decade. In 2001 UNHCR, the main U.N. agency charged with providing protection and assistance to refugees, reported that there were 218,500 refugees living in Kenya of whom as many as 60,000 were estimated to be in Nairobi, the country’s capital city.

“Due to capacity and security concerns, as well as growing xenophobia, Kenya requires the majority of refugees arriving in the country to live confined in camps located in remote areas. The presence of combatants or criminal elements among refugee populations has become a legitimate security concern for the country”, says the report.

Surprisingly though, government officials even go so far as to deny the very existence of refugees in urban centers. “For example, when a Human Rights Watch researcher spoke with a senior official of the Kenyan Office of Home Affairs in an attempt to get an interview regarding human rights abuses of urban refugees in Nairobi, she was told "there are no refugees in Nairobi," notes the report.

Most of the refugees are drawn to Nairobi after experiencing the hardships of refugee camps. The damning report describes life in a refugee camp in Kenya as “grueling”. Refugees often face armed attacks or are subject to inter-ethnic tensions or discrimination, not to mention inadequate humanitarian assistance, medical care and educational opportunities.

The report says that the violation of refugees’ rights continue despite Kenya being a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention).

In addition, Kenya is obligated to prevent and punish abuses of the human rights provided for in (among other treaties): the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) the Convention Against Torture (CAT) the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“Women and children are subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of their fellow refugees. If asylum seekers can afford the time or money it takes to travel to UNHCR's offices to have their status as refugees assessed, they are caught up in a time-consuming and uncertain process that affords them pieces of paper that are then ignored and even destroyed by the Kenyan police”, the report says.

The report further notes that almost all refugees, just like ordinary Kenyans, must pay bribes to escape spending time in Nairobi's crowded and filthy jails. Still, others may find themselves summarily returned to the countries from which they fled.

The report states that once they arrive in Nairobi, asylum seekers and refugees have few places to turn to meet their basic needs. UNHCR is the main organisation responsible, and the primary service the agency provides in Nairobi is to assess and regularise the legal status of refugees.

Goal, an Irish relief organisation, is UNHCR's main implementing partner in Nairobi providing psychotherapeutic counselling and medical care. It also runs a large secure accommodation centre. A few international NGOs and faith-based organisations provide some limited housing and food assistance to refugees.

According to the report, most refugees in Nairobi live in appalling and overcrowded conditions. Apart from a single secure accommodation centre that houses 190 high-risk security cases and a few ad hoc protected houses, UNHCR does not provide housing assistance. Refugees live in some of the worst housing in Nairobi. The rooms are almost always located in the poorest and least safe neighbourhoods.

”Many live in rectangular sheds constructed out of corrugated tin sheets, divided into a single row of five to seven rooms, each with a door to the outside and either tin, wood, or cement walls dividing the rooms. Entire refugee families occupy single rooms as small as fifteen by fifteen feet. Often, there is only a communal pit latrine and limited piped water and electricity”, the report sadly notes.

For instance, in the Dagoretti neighbourhood, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited an apartment building that was still under construction, just an empty cement shell without windows, toilets, water or electricity. The landlord was allowing newly-arrived asylum seekers to sleep in the unfinished rooms until the building was completed (whereupon they would be rendered homeless).

The report notes that besides securing shelter, asylum seekers spend most of the remainder of their time trying to obtain food and other material assistance. For many, it is a daily struggle. UNHCR does not provide food and material assistance to asylum seekers, only to a small portion of recognised refugees who are awaiting resettlement placement.

Since the status determination process takes several months or even years in Nairobi, individuals spend a great deal of time waiting to be recognised and without access to the few resources that UNHCR does offer. Consequently, the report says, in Nairobi, individuals live as asylum seekers in dire poverty for many months, or even years.

In Nairobi, according to the report, both asylum seekers and refugees are eligible to receive medical treatment from UNHCR and its implementing partner, Goal. However, in practice most never obtain treatment from UNHCR referrals either because they cannot afford to pay for travel to the UNHCR office to obtain the referral, or if they travel to UNHCR, they find that the procedure to obtain a referral is particularly cumbersome and is exacerbated by long waiting times.

The report notes that though torture victims and victims of sexual violence are in acute need of psychotherapeutic counselling and medical care, many of these victims are not getting the treatment they need. Several torture victims in Nairobi have received counselling from Goal, which has well-trained counsellors and interpreters waiting to assist refugees, but refugees are only referred to Goal after a very long wait.

The report cites the case of a thirty-nine-year-old Ethiopian woman who had been a supporter of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). She told Human Rights Watch that the last time she had been tortured began with her arrest, “by the Moyale police in northern Kenya on April 3, 1999.”

She continued: “They transferred me to Negele Civil Prison on May 7, 1999. I was released on March 3, 2000. During my time in prison, I was raped by the guards repeatedly. I was also severely beaten. They would torture me by tying my breasts with strings. I had so many medical problems there and there was no treatment for me”. She went to UNHCR on June 9, 2000 and was only referred for psychotherapeutic counseling five months later, on October 12, 2000.

The report notes that lack of protection is a major problem facing asylum seekers as soon as they land in Nairobi. Some of the refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch became targets of violence while sleeping outside UNHCR's offices in Westlands, near a major thoroughfare. Amina P., a girl who had fled the fighting in Somalia in 1994 when she was twelve years old, had been raped repeatedly in the refugee camps and was transferred to Nairobi by UNHCR when she contracted tuberculosis. Said she:

“[In 2001], I started sleeping outside UNHCR because I really needed help from them. They kept telling me that now I was better I had to go back to the camp. But I could not go back to either camp-those places were not good for me. I slept in front of UNHCR for one month and seventeen days. One night, as I crossed the street to the shops to get some charcoal so I could cook some food, I was attacked by four men, who pushed me down and pulled up my dress. When I tried to resist, one of them sliced my thigh with a knife. They started raping me. I passed out eventually”.

According to the report, complicated ethnic and military alliances that characterise the conflicts around the Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo) are spread to Kenya. As a result, refugees in Nairobi often report being threatened, abused, or harassed by other refugees from their own country.

For example, Lumumba S., a Banyamulenge refugee who had been very active in negotiating for the rights of his people with the Congolese government felt that several groups of refugees in Nairobi were openly hostile to him. He said: “We have everyone against us. The [ethnic] Hutu are saying we are after them. The genocidaires [Rwandan Hutu extremists responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide] are here in Kenya and we are afraid of them”.

The report notes that ironically, the Kenya police, who are supposed to offer protection, harasses and extorts money from refugees.According to the report, police in Nairobi routinely stop refugees and asylum seekers to ask for their national identity cards. Since they do not have these cards, asylum seekers only have their UNHCR-issued appointment slips to show, and recognised refugees can show their UNHCR-issued protection letters (also referred to by refugees as their "mandates”.

Upon inspection of these documents, the police routinely ignore or destroy the documents and either threaten the individual with arrest and detention unless a bribe is paid. In most cases, the refugees pay the bribe to avoid arrest. Often, refugees described beatings by the police during the arrests.

“Since bribery is a major revenue producer for police, and refugees are prime targets for arbitrary arrest, there is an emerging "competition" amongst officers to be stationed in the slum neighbourhoods where refugees live. Police are also familiar with the offices that refugees frequent, and stop and arrest refugees on their way to and from UNHCR and NGO offices”, says the report.

According to the report, those refugees who cannot pay the requisite bribe or who are brought directly to the police station by the police will likely spend some time in jail. UNHCR estimated that there were 2,300 detentions last year, although the senior protection officer admitted that often UNHCR is not informed when refugees are held in detention.

The report also apportions blame to the UNHCR for failing to identify refugees who are at risk when they first register at the office, in direct contravention of its own policies on refugee women and children. For example, one of its policies states that it should promote safe living arrangements for refugee children and their families, and where necessary, organise special accommodation for individuals at particular risk, such as unaccompanied young women, families headed by women, or abused children.

“In addition, refugees who have experienced violence and insecurity are unable to access UNHCR to report on their abuse, and when they do, UNHCR often does not adequately track complaints or intervene with local police. Even local human rights groups experience problems reaching UNHCR when they try to draw the agency's attention to these problems”, concludes the report.

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