U.N. complicit in Kenya’s illegal forced refugee repatriation scheme, critics say

Newly arrived Somali refugees wait outside a UNHCR processing center at the Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Somali border. (Credit: AP Photo)

Even as President Obama, speaking today at the United Nations, urges the world to do more in response to the massive global refugee crisis, critics say one U.N.-backed scheme in Kenya is simply a disguised effort to give the boot to the displaced.

Somalis living in the world’s biggest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, are being forced out despite claims by the Kenyan government and U.N. officials that the departures are humane and voluntary, according to Human Rights Watch.

“There is no way these returns can be considered voluntary,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Humanosphere.

The rights organization, in a new report on the Dadaab refugee crisis, contends that the actions taken by Kenya with support from the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are abusive and in violation of international law.

The U.N. agency and Kenyan government officials dispute HRW’s claims, however, and contend all repatriations are legal and voluntary.

“We have not seen [forced returns],” said a UNHCR spokesman, Duke Mwancha, who responded to Humanosphere when the HRW report findings were first made public weeks ago.

Last May, the Kenyan government ordered the closure of the Dadaab camp, which has hosted more than 300,000 Somali refugees over the past 25 years, by November because of repeated al-Shabab terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil. Since the announcement, many Somali refugees have left the camp and officials have characterized the departures as ‘voluntary.’

To speed up the process, UNHCR has offered cash incentives and security information to the camp’s Somali refugees to voluntarily return home. But the HRW report reveals that refugees making the decision to return home under the scheme are doing so under duress from the Kenyan government.

Human Rights Watch claims that many are leaving the camp involuntarily because of intimidation from the Kenyan government. The organization contends that refugees risk losing cash incentives promised by UNHCR if they decide instead to stay in Kenya.

According to many of the 100 refugees interviewed as part of the human rights investigation, these factors are “prompting many camp residents to return now to Somalia, where they face danger, persecution and hunger.”

Among those interviewed, a 42-year-old Somali woman who signed up for UNHCR’s repatriation program told the human rights group about threats she faced from the government to return to a country still plagued by conflict and hunger.

“We fled Somalia because of specific problems, and those problems are still there,” she said. “It’s not the right time for us to go back. But every day the Kenyan government is telling us that we have to go, and UNHCR is not giving us any different information. …I said I will go back as we have no other option.”

Refugees who consider returning home are given ill-informed or false information, according to HRW’s Frelick, and are not properly informed about the security situation in Somalia.

“The Kenyan authorities are not giving Somali refugees a real choice between staying and leaving, and the U.N. refugee agency isn’t giving people accurate information about security conditions in Somalia,” Frelick said.

Human Rights Watch said that forcing refugees to leave against their will is a breach of the U.N’s own humanitarian protocols. The U.N.’s 1951 Convention on Refugees requires that host nations do not resettle refugees in countries where their lives might be at risk.

According to Human Rights Watch, “repatriation is only considered voluntary if refugees have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and are fully informed about conditions in their home country.”

Responding to claims from the Human Rights Watch report, UNHCR released a statement reasserting that returns are voluntary. “Central to any refugee return process is the principle of voluntariness,” it said, adding that “we have consistently stressed that repatriation must be voluntary and cannot, therefore, be time-bound.”

The U.N. agency also defended itself against claims that the repatriation agreement is failing to fully inform refugees before they make the decision to leave Dadaab camp.

“UNHCR is committed to ensure that all refugees receive adequate information about conditions in the country of origin and are able to make an informed decision regarding return. We regularly meet with refugees and broadcast radio messages in English and Somali, emphasizing that returns must be voluntary and based on an informed decision.”

“We do not expect that it will get to a situation where anybody is forced to go back home, because that is not within our international obligations,” said UNHCR’s Duke Mwancha.

Others working with the U.N. in Kenya, however, appear to confirm the HRW contentions.

“Families we have interviewed and many of those who filled the repatriation forms have shown that they are returning because of threatening rhetoric by Kenyan regional security officials who recently visited the camp,” Dadaab-based U.N. official Mohamed Mahad Gurhan told Voice of America recently.

The HRW report and others said that Somalis repatriated from Kenya said they sometimes arrive back in their home nation to a refugee camp lacking basic services such as food and access to water.

Mohamed Darwish, Somalia’s Jubbaland’s interior and security minister, told Voice of America’s last month that the Kenyan repatriation agreement “did not fulfill the expectations of the refugees” and that basic services were not to the same standard as the camp.

“They are transported from Dadaab with trucks and once they reach Somalia they are given $200,” Darwish said. “That is it. They do not have the basic human necessities such as water, food and shelter.”

William Ruto, Kenya’s vice president told the Guardian earlier this year that refugees would be forced to leave and that Kenya was meeting its international obligation to protect refugees.

Kenyan authorities defend their actions as legal and no different from those employed by other refugee-hosting nations.

“This is the standard practice worldwide. For example in Europe, rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two,” said Kenya’s cabinet secretary, Joseph Nkaissery in a statement in May.

Some are keen to highlight Dadaab as an example of how refugees are being failed by organizations that are charged with protecting them. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, Ruto defended the closure of Dadaab and attacked the international community’s response to humanitarian crises worldwide.

“Nothing can better demonstrate the failure of international burden-sharing than this reality. It is also an indictment on the global framework for responding to human distress.”

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com