Kenya tensions spark Somali refugee flight

Several thousand Somalis have fled Kenya in the last two months because of what they call a climate of xenophobia.

A Somali man runs away from youth throwing stones as break into a shop during the second day of skirmishes in Nairobi
Eastleigh neighbourhood in Nairobi has been wracked with tension following a wave of attacks [Reuters]

Nairobi, Kenya – The shopping malls and market stands of a Somali-dominated suburb in eastern Nairobi have been quieter than usual.

Taxi drivers in Eastleigh, a lucrative trade hub known locally as “Little Mogadishu”, say business is drying up as Somalis leave Kenya to return home.

Somali refugees say they are harassed by Kenyan police, and wrongfully blamed for a wave of attacks that have shaken Kenya in recent months.

“People here are scared,” says Jayhan Mohamed, a refugee in Eastleigh who fled a forced marriage and daily gunfights in the war-ravaged Somali capital, Mogadishu, with her baby son four years ago.

“Somalis are attacked in their shops and homes. Police are going into houses, demanding money. Some people have been forced to sell their jewellery just to buy their way out of the police station.

“Many are running away from Kenya, going back home to a country without security rather than stay here.”

The United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says the 13 weekly flights from Nairobi to Mogadishu are packed with returning Somalis. According to Dr Ibrahim Farah, a Somali lecturer at Nairobi University, 6,000 Somali families have left Kenya since the country announced a clampdown on refugees and asylum seekers at the end of last year.

Half a million refugees

East Africa’s biggest economy is home to some half a million registered Somali refugees, although aid agencies believe that the real number is much higher.

About 450,000 live in the sprawling, overcrowded and sun-baked camps at Dadaab, close to the Somali border.

Kenya has suffered a wave of kidnappings, grenade and gun attacks in Dadaab, Eastleigh and Garissa, ever since Kenyan forces launched an offensive against hard-line armed group al-Shabab in south Somalia at the end of 2011.

You can’t castigate an entire community. You can’t blame all Somali refugees for the attacks.”

– LeilaWaithira, lawyer

In Garissa, a Kenyan town close to the Somali border, gunmen have opened fire on worshippers in churches. Grenades are regularly flung at mosques and mini-buses in Eastleigh, splattering walls and windows with victims’ blood.

Kenyan police and soldiers have also been targeted and killed. In December, a hand-grenade raid claimed five lives and injured Yusuf Hassan, an ethnic Somali politician.

In a statement, Kenyan refugee officials warned of “rampant insecurity” and an “unbearable and uncontrollable threat” that must be contained.

Kenyan security forces blame attacks on sympathisers of al-Shabab, a group with known links to al-Qaeda and ambitions to rule Somalia.

Kenyan officials plan to round-up 34,000 Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Eastleigh and other urban areas, and hold them in a football stadium north of Nairobi.

Somali refugees will then be sent to Dadaab, one of the world’s biggest refugee centres, which is known for its insecurity, mosquitoes and desert scorpions.

“Some of these people have lived in Kenya for two decades,” added Mohamed, 20. “They speak good Swahili and English, have children at school, own businesses, homes and study at universities.”

Police harassment

Human Rights Watch and other agencies accuse Kenyan officials of “stigmatisation”, and have documented 300 cases of police harassing Somali refugees last year alone.

Daadab refugee camp is known for its difficult conditions [AFP]

Farah Maalim, an ethnic Somali politician in Kenya, says “Eastleigh has become an ATM” for police officers wanting to make quick cash.

The Refugee Consortium of Kenya, a group that is challenging the government’s refugee round-up in Kenya’s courts, says the government is violating the Kenyan constitution and international conventions on refugees. The next hearing is set for February 4.

“You can’t castigate an entire community. You can’t blame all Somali refugees for the attacks,” said Leila Waithira, a lawyer for the consortium. “If members of a community are responsible, then the security services should deal with those individuals.”

Human Rights Watch has also said that there is little evidence to connect the bombings and shootings with Somali refugees.

Many victims of attacks have been ethnic Somalis, and those arrested include Yemenis and members of Kenya’s ethnic Somali population.

While there are a number of theories about who’s behind the attacks, the most common explanation is that al-Shabab fighters and sympathisers are retaliating for Kenya’s ongoing presence in southern Somalia.

Another is that al-Qaeda agents are trying to drive a wedge between Kenya’s ethnic and religious groups, or that Somali inter-clan feuds are spilling over. For their part, many Somali refugees accuse Kenyan security agents of carrying out attacks to spur an anti-Somali backlash.

Refugee roundup

While UNHCR has praised Kenya for hosting such a large number of refugees, who have fled conflict and instability in Somalia and other African hotspots, many Kenyans see the refugees as a problem. In November, rioters attacked ethnic Somalis in Eastleigh after a bomb attack that killed nine people.

Wasia Masitsa, a migration expert for the legal rights group Kituo Cha Sheria, said the refugee roundup is popular among Kenyans.

“It is taking place under a highly charged xenophobic environment and a feeling that Somalis are responsible for the insecurity,” he told Al Jazeera.

The policy is likely to appeal to voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled to take place on March 4, he said.

These security concerns mean they’re undertaking a relocation that is illegal, won’t solve the problem, will alienate refugees and rights activists.”

– Dr Ibrahim Farah, university lecturer

“There is a feeling that Somalis are slowly colonising the country,” he added. “That they are buying up businesses, land and buildings and competing for jobs. That they are minority that is becoming a force to be reckoned with.”

Eastleigh has long been an economic hub for Nairobi and a popular place to buy flashy clothes, electronics and exotic food.

Its success is a testament to the entrepreneurial zeal of Somalis, who are famed for turning a profit in adversity.

Eastleigh’s shopping malls make about $7m a year, according to a 2011 study by the UK think tank Chatham House, while Somali-owned trucking firms in Kenya make $20m annually.

Damaged economy

The crackdown and harassment of Somalis in Eastleigh has already damaged an economy that is worth “billions of dollars” to Kenya, said Farah, the lecturer at Nairobi University.

“Kenya’s government is going overboard,” he said. “These security concerns mean they’re undertaking a relocation that is illegal, won’t solve the problem, will alienate refugees and rights activists. And they’re going to lose money.”

Recent military gains and a new government across the border in Somalia have raised hopes of peace and economic growth after two decades of conflict.

In December, Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki said he was working with officials in Mogadishu to “enable the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who are living in refugee camps to return” home.

Dr Farah said the plan to relocate Eastleigh’s Somali population is one part of a bigger transition that will change the face of the region.

“It’s just a temporary issue in a longer, drawn-out resolution, which will involve greater peace and stability in Somalia and the gradual relocation of some half million refugees back to their homeland,” he said.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera

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