On the morning of Nov. 2, Kenyan armed forces entered the house of James Gatdet Dak and informed him that he was being arrested and deported back to Juba, South Sudan, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Gatdet is a spokesman for former Vice President and opposition leader Riek Machar and had been registered as a refugee in Kenya since 2015. He was forced to flee South Sudan after violence between troops loyal to former Machar and government forces – which started in December 2013 – spread across the country, bringing with it thousands of civilian deaths, and widespread allegations of torture and rape. Like 600,000 other refugees from neighboring countries, Gatded and his family came to Kenya in search of safety and peace.
The day before his arrest, Gatdet, posted a statement on his Facebook page supporting the dismissal by the U.N. of a Kenyan commander of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which failed to protect civilians in a deadly attack in July. The Kenyan government has responded angrily to the sacking, and has since started withdrawing peacekeeping troops from South Sudan, as well as threatening to pull out of the peace negotiations in which it has been a key player.
Human rights organizations and South Sudanese refugees in Kenya are speculating that the deportation – of which there is no documented evidence – is a result of Gatdet’s Facebook post, and can be seen in the context of the government’s response to the sacking of General Lieutenant-General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki. But despite Gatdet’s statements, the deportation came as a shock to his family and colleagues.
“Kenya’s decision certainly violates its own laws, with regards to refugee policies, and sends a very bad signal to asylum-seekers who have had to flee very difficult situations and have come to Kenya hoping to find a state that abides by the rule of law” Jonathan Pedneauld, South Sudan researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Humanosphere. “The deportation may constitute a violation of the principle of nonrefoulment in international law, and moreover one that puts James Gatded at risk, something that Kenyan authorities were aware of when they chose to deport him.”
But certain Kenyan politicians seemed unconcerned, if not jubilant, at the prospect of Gatdet being placed in such danger. Weston Wanjohi, a member of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s political party who openly lobbies on behalf of Salva Kiir’s government and is vying to become MP in the upcoming elections, used his social media to taunt Gatdet:
Mathiang Anyoor is the Dinka armed group that has fought alongside Salva Kiir’s forces since the outbreak of violence in 2013, and is accused of killing thousands of ethnic Nuer, the ethnic group to which Gatdet belongs.
“How can any refugees be safe in Kenya, if the government is willing to hand them over to the very people they are escaping from?” asked a South Sudanese colleague and friend of Gatdet’s, speaking to Humanosphere on condition of anonymity.
Although it is unclear whether the deportation is a result of pressure from Juba, or a decision taken unilaterally by Kenya to deter other refugees from meddling in its internal affairs, the consensus among many of the people interviewed for this article seemed to be that Gatdet’s deportation can be seen in the context of the upcoming Kenyan elections.
“Money plays a big role in Kenya. Corruption always increases before elections, because to win elections one needs lots of money,” one Kenyan politician told Humanosphere, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety. One way to seek political financing is by aligning to foreign interests, and politicians vying for power are seemingly keen to keep Salva Kiir’s government happy in pre-election season.
Gatdet’s deportation comes when Kenya is already under fire by various rights groups for its treatment of Somali refugees. Kenya had announced in May that Dadaab, with more than 280,000 residents, would be closed at the end of this month, but has since backtracked several times, causing confusion among humanitarian agencies and refugees alike. Despite Kenya’s assurance to the international community that repatriations would be voluntary and carried out in safety and dignity, reports from both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found that refugees are being threatened by government officials, and are left with little choice but to return to Somalia, where they risk being killed or forcibly recruited into al-Shabab.
The closure of Dadaab, Gatdet’s deportation and the 2017 are seen as related: in a county where refugees remain a contentious issue, especially after a spate of terrorist attacks in recent years, scapegoating refugees plays well with large part of the electorate, of which two-thirds support the closure. And with millions of dollars pledged by the World Bank and the U.N. (among others) to support the repatriation, it is not too big a stretch to speculate that in a country plagued by corruption, at least some of these funds will be misappropriated.